Opponents of Turkey's President said yesterday they would contest the results of a referendum on whether to give him sweeping new powers.

In a dramatic finish to the bitterly fought referendum campaign, the state-run news agency said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Yes camp had won about 51 per cent while the No campaign took 49 per cent with 98 per cent of the vote counted.

Erdogan claimed victory in a low-key speech in Istanbul in which he appealed for unity.

"This is a historic decision, not an ordinary event," he said. "We are carrying out the most important reform in the history of our nation."


Erdogan said he would immediately look at restoring the death penalty, a move that would end any possibility of Turkey joining the European Union.

But the opposition CHP party said it was looking to contest 37 per cent of the ballot boxes over suspicion of vote tampering. The CHP's protest was based on a last-minute decision by the High Electoral Board to accept ballots that had not been officially stamped.

Turkish ballots are usually stamped before they are handed to voters but the board announced at the last minute it would accept unstamped ballots unless they could be proven to be fraudulent.

"The High Electoral Board has failed by allowing fraud in the referendum," CHP deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan said at the party's headquarters in Ankara. Erdogan's supporters took to the streets nearby in celebration.

The Yes vote gives the Government the authority to scrap Turkey's century-old parliamentary system and replace it with a presidential model.

Opponents have warned that the new system will send Turkey lurching towards dictatorship as it would concentrate unchecked power in the hands of Erdogan, who has jailed opponents and cracked down on dissent since a failed coup against him last year.

The new constitutional system will get rid of the role of prime minister and transform the presidency from a largely ceremonial position into a vastly powerful post as both head of state and head of the Government.

The President will be able to appoint senior judges, declare a state of emergency, dissolve Parliament and, in some cases, issue new laws by decree.

It will also theoretically allow Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics as President and Prime Minister since 2003, to stay in office until 2029.

Most of the changes will not come into effect until after Turkey's next presidential election in 2019 but Erdogan's towering position in Turkish politics makes it unlikely that anyone will be able to challenge him.

Turnout was high with more 86 per cent of the country's 55 million eligible voters casting ballots that were simply marked Yes or No. All three of Turkey's largest cities appeared to have voted No but Erdogan gained enough support in rural areas to claim victory.

Three people were killed in an apparent political dispute at a voting station in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakr and two officials from the main opposition party were beaten at another polling station by unknown assailants.

Several hundred young people took to the streets in Kadikoy, one of Istanbul's most liberal neighbourhoods, to protest at the results. "Erdogan the thief, Erdogan the murderer," they chanted.

Yakup Yeldiz, a 21-year-old student, said: "The future is dark now. We hoped democracy would find its way, but it won't. There's no democracy now. I feel like laughing but I'm really crying."

At a secondary school in the Kosuyolu neighbourhood of Istanbul, voters mostly stuck to familiar scripts after they cast their ballots: Yes voters said they had faith in Erdogan while No voters said they feared too much power would be given to one man.

But others offered surprising reasons for their vote.

Insaf Akay, a 37-year-old mother in a headscarf, said she was tired of being discriminated against by secular Turks, describing how she had been spat on in a market. "I think there will be more freedom for people like me under the new system," she said.

Mustafa Sacat, 62, said he normally voted for Erdogan and his AKP party but did not want to give up on the parliamentary system that has governed Turkey since 1920. "I like Erdogan but I want to keep the Parliament system."

Erdogan staked his personal credibility on a Yes vote and every Turkish city and town was plastered with thousands of posters bearing his image. During the campaign he rallied nationalist voters by equating the No camp with terrorism and stoked an explosive diplomatic row with the EU.

New powers

• Under the reforms, which do away with the prime minister's role, the President will be able to:

• Directly appoint top public officials, including ministers

• Assign one or several vice-presidents

• Intervene in the judiciary

• Impose a state of emergency

• Issue new laws by decree