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Turkish Voters Narrowly Approve Referendum To Expand Presidential Powers

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now to Turkey, which voted yesterday to give more powers to its president. The victory was surprisingly narrow. International monitors are raising questions about the vote, and the opposition is demanding a recount of some ballots. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more on what a divided Turkey may face under the new system.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan say he's on track to become the most powerful Turkish leader since the Republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and they are overjoyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING POTS AND PANS)

KENYON: But in neighborhoods that voted against these sweeping changes, the clanging of pots and pans serves as a nonverbal sign that many Turks remain deeply opposed to the change. Twenty-eight-year-old no voter Cansu Yazici says it's not just about Erdogan. She would've voted against giving even her favorite president these additional powers. She says it's just too risky.

CANSU YAZICI: Giving all the powers to a single person is never good at - anywhere. You should also give the power to the people, actually, to decide about their future 'cause in Turkey, there are so many different people.

KENYON: Turks have seen strongman leaders before. Ataturk yanked a 20th century nation state out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and forcibly turned an entire population toward the west. Now analysts say Turkey is moving toward a similar period of one man dominating the political scene but from a very different perspective.

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish author and visiting fellow at Wellesley College, says even though supporters of this referendum are calling it a victory for democracy, he believes the reduced checks on presidential power in the new system will undermine the nature of that democracy.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: So in that sense, it is making Turkey officially an illiberal democracy because in liberal democracies, separation of powers, checks and balances are really important values. And Turkey's obviously moving from that right now.

KENYON: When the new system kicks in, Erdogan will assume the executive powers now held by the prime minister, and he will also gain more influence - direct and indirect - over the parliament and the judiciary. But yes voters say the people have spoken, and the opposition should drop its complaints about the vote and move on. Thirty-year-old Omer Faruk says no voters are overreacting.

OMER FARUK: My close friends - some of them - they're also saying no because of Erdogan. How do I say it? They have been tired of Erdogan. I understand them, but this is democracy.

KENYON: How to bridge this divide is the challenge now facing Erdogan if he chooses to take it up. Analyst Mustafa Akyol says Erdogan has tried to calm tensions after previous votes, but they've always bubbled up again eventually.

AKYOL: The country is very divided. And actually, a constitutional design approved only by 51 percent of society and fiercely opposed by the rest is actually an unhealthy state of affairs.

KENYON: If he keeps winning elections as he has for nearly 15 years now, Erdogan could remain in power until at least 2029. But Akyol says the very closeness of this vote should cause some concern.

AKYOL: In 2019, he will have the next presidential elections. And the vote he got just yesterday shows that it is not given that he will win these.

KENYON: On the other hand, after more than a decade in power, Erdogan still faces no political rival considered powerful enough to defeat him, and his supporters don't seem worried yet. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.