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Erdogan declares victory in referendum

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the country’s prime minister have declared victory in a Sunday referendum designed to hand Erdogan sweeping powers.

The Turkish Election Commission has yet to release its official results and the opposition promised to contest at least a third of the votes cast, but according to the state-run Anadolu Agency, with more than 99% of the ballots counted, Erdogan appeared poised to win with 51.2% of voters casting ballots in his favor.

“God willing, these results will be the beginning of a new era in our country,” Erdogan said at a news conference Sunday night, explaining that unofficial totals indicated the “yes” votes had prevailed in the referendum by about 1.3 million ballots, while Anadolu pegged it at closer to 1.1 million.

Shortly before Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım declared a victory for Erdogan, thousands converged in celebration at the Ankara headquarters of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, that Erdogan founded. The revelers honked their horns and waved Turkish flags along with white flags saying, “Evet” — Turkish for yes — which appeared to be the way the majority of voters cast their ballots.

Though the official tally was not yet final, Anadolu was reporting that Erdogan had called Yıldırım and the leaders of the right-wing National Movement and Great Unity parties to offer “congratulations for the referendum victory.”

Yildirim later took the stage at AKP headquarters in Ankara to herald what he said was a win for the “yes” vote. He says those who voted yes and those who voted no remain one, and now the country will look to improve the economy, expedite development and fight its foreign and domestic enemies.

“No one should have an offended or broken heart,” the prime minister said. “There’s no stopping. We will continue our path. We will continue marching on from where we left.”

Voters were asked to endorse an 18-article reform package put forward by the ruling Justice and Development Party that would replace the current system of parliamentary democracy with a powerful executive presidency.

Controversy flared Sunday after the High Electoral Board announced it would not accept ballots that were missing ballot commission stamps. But the board changed course after voting was under way, saying it would accept unstamped ballots “unless they are proven to have been brought from outside.”

The opposition said this would affect the legitimacy of the vote and was calling for a partial recount of about 37% of the votes, said Erdal Aksunger of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP. He left the door open to challenging a higher percentage of the ballots.

“The High Electoral Board has changed the rules after the voting started. There is a clear clause in electoral law saying unstamped ballots will be invalid and the High Electoral Board issued its notice in compliance with this law,” CHP deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan said.

Later, CHP leader Kemal Kılıcdaroglu said in a news conference, “On what grounds do you declare these valid? … You should not change the rules in the middle of the game. … This is not right. Weill never accept this.”

Erdogan, who cast his vote in Istanbul earlier in the day amid tight security, said he hoped Turks would make the “expected” choice.

Earlier in the day, three people were reported to have died after an exchange of gunfire near a polling station in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır.

A violent argument erupted at a polling place in the village of Yabanard. Two men, aged 68 and 32, were shot after two families got into an argument, Anadolu reported.

As a minibus transported the wounded men to Siverek Public Hospital, it was attacked by people with guns and stones and another villager was injured. All three victims, who shared the same last name, later died, the news agency reported.

If passed, the measures will represent the biggest constitutional upheaval in the country since its foundation in 1923 after the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

They would cement Erdogan’s grip on a country whose divisions have deepened since a failed coup attempt last July that ended with the deaths of more than 250 people and led to the imposition of a fierce crackdown on dissent.

Those who support the reforms believe they will kick-start a lethargic economy and stabilize a nation dealing with the resurgence of a 30-year conflict with militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).