People in Turkey have started casting their ballots in a controversial constitutional referendum that could place sweeping new powers in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with opponents fearing a possible authoritarian rule.
Polling stations opened in Turkey’s east at 7:00 a.m. local time (0400GMT) on Sunday and will close at 5:00 p.m. local time (1400 GMT). Elsewhere in the country, the voting will begin an hour later.
Over 55.3 million Turks are eligible to vote in the referendum, over 1 million of them first-time voters. The results are expected late on Sunday.
Under the new constitution, the office and position of prime minister, currently held by Binali Yildirim, would be scrapped. The president would also be granted executive powers to directly appoint top public officials, including ministers, and assign one or several vice presidents.
The new system states that Turkey’s next presidential and parliamentary elections will be held simultaneously on November 3, 2019 and the head of state would have a five-year tenure, for a maximum of two terms.
The fresh constitutional changes would mean that Erdogan could stay in power for another two terms until 2029.
He could further resume the leadership of the Justice and Development (AKP) party as the president is no more required to be impartial and without party favor.
Additionally, the president would have the authority to draft the budget and declare a state of emergency.
Opinion polls have given a narrow lead for a "Yes" vote in the referendum while analysts believe the outcome remains too close to call.
At one of his final rallies in Istanbul's Tuzla district on Saturday, Erdogan argued, "The new constitution will bring stability and trust that is needed for our country to develop and grow. Turkey can leap into the future."
On the contrary, the opposition complains that the referendum has been conducted on unfair terms, with opposition voices squeezed from the media.
Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu warned at his final rally that Turkey was deciding if "we want to continue with the democratic parliamentary system or one-man rule".
He also described the new system as "a bus with no brakes and whose destination is unknown.”
Last year, Turkey saw a host of terrorist attacks, most of them blamed on either the Daesh terrorist group or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The country further witnessed a failed military coup last July which was blamed on the movement led by US-based opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen. He has denied the charges.
Since then, Turkey has been under a state of emergency that has enabled the government to suppress the media and opposition groups, which were believed to have played a role in the abortive putsch.