Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is claiming victory in a referendum that gives him extraordinary new powers.
The vote - much closer than many anticipated - makes Erdogan a virtual dictator. Turkey, previously a nominal parliamentary democracy, will now embrace a presidential system of government, granting the chief executive the power to issue decrees and exercise authority previously reserved for the legislature.
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.
"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 1.14 million.
Several groups fighting in Syria tweeted their congratulations to Turkey, and according to Anadolu, Azerbaijani, Palestinian, Qatari, Pakistani, Hungarian, Macedonian, Saudi, Sudanese and Kenyan leaders passed along congratulatory messages to Turkey's Foreign Ministry.
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 danced, sang, chanted, lit flares, honked their car 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.
Many in attendance saw the referendum's result as an important message for the world, not just the nation. Wasin Yalcin, 24, said the vote represented "a new hope for us to get rid of foreign forces," while Yusuf Basaran, 20, said he believed "Europe's spine has cracked. This referendum will be the most effective thing in the rebirth of the Ottoman Empire."
Added Aysel Can, a member of the AKP's women's branch, "For a strong Islamic state, for a strong Middle East, Turkey had to switch to this executive presidency system. This is a message to the world to shut up; Turkey is getting stronger. America has to know this, too. We are the voice, we are the ears, we are everything for the Middle East."
It's hard to overstate the incredible transformation of Turkey over the last decade under Erdogan's rule. The country has gone from a secular democracy to a full blown Islamist state. Erdogan has cleansed the bureaucracy, the army, cultural institutions, and politics of the last vestiges of secularism that was the hallmark of Turkish society since the end of World War I. The army, former guarantor of this secularism, has been purged and remade in the image of Erdogan's notion of "Islamist democracy."
Erdogan used the failed coup of last July as an excuse to deliver the coup de tat to any opposition to his rule. Tens of thousands remain under arrest or were fired from their jobs. It only remained for the Turkish people to supply the death blow.
Now, there is an Islamist government in the heart of Europe in one of the most strategically located countries on earth, with a large, well trained modern army armed with the latest NATO weapons. The referendum victory gives Erdogan enormous leverage with NATO and the US. Quite simply, the US will have a hard time fighting ISIS and blunting Iranian ambitions without the cooperation of Turkey.
This is a strategic setback of the first order for NATO and US security interests.