Turkey's constitutional elections could alter political landscape

By Gul Tuysuz
Friday, September 10, 2010; 7:56 PM

ISTANBUL - The battle between Turkey's socially conservative, Islam-rooted government and the country's more secular political establishment comes to a head Sunday, when Turks vote on a package of constitutional amendments in a referendum that is being cast as a judgment on the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A single up-or-down vote is required on 26 proposed constitutional changes, which range from uncontroversial steps such as expanding rights for the disabled to a more polarizing amendment that would give the executive branch more power in appointing judges and state prosecutors.

The referendum marks the most far-reaching attempt to amend the constitution since it was put in place in 1982 after a military coup.

The results will shape Turkey's political outlook as it heads into general elections in the spring. A no vote could bolster the opposition and cost Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) support in those elections. That could lead to a coalition government, which in the past has prompted economic instability.

A yes vote would give the AKP another chance to confirm its mandate and an advantage heading into campaigning for a third term. But it also means that the polarization among Turks about the country's direction will continue to grow.

Signs of the referendum are everywhere in Istanbul. Posters with political slogans line the streets, and trucks blasting campaign tunes roam even the more idyllic neighborhoods.

For a recent AKP rally, dozens of ships sailed the Bosphorus Strait honking their horns, with posters of Erdogan flying high.

Erdogan has been seen as a divisive figure in Turkey since long before his AKP swept to power in the general elections of 2002. After he was imprisoned in 1998 for violating the principles of secularism, he went on to break with his overtly Islamist past to found the socially conservative, free-market-oriented AKP.

Although the AKP has scored two impressive electoral victories in the past eight years, it has never managed to appease the fears of large swaths of Turkish voters, especially those who claim to be the ideological heirs of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founding father. Many of the Kemalists contend that the AKP, with its roots in Islamist politics, is not the democratic party it says it has become but instead aims to undermine secularism, one of the Turkish constitution's founding principles.

The AKP amendments regarding the country's key judicial institutions are seen in Kemalist circles as a stab at the heart of Turkey's secular republic. Kemalists, who view the judiciary - and especially the Constitutional Court - as a crucial check on what they perceive as the AKP's anti-secular designs, characterize the proposed changes as a full-blown AKP attempt to take over the last branch of government still outside the party's control.

"Every word of the amendments have been formulated to ensure that the remaining check against the AKP is eliminated," said Haldun Solmazturk, a retired general.

For AKP supporters, the changes would turn Turkey into a more democratic, more socially liberal country that could one day earn entry into the European Union. They welcome the package as an opportunity to escape the legacy of rule by a secularist establishment under military tutelage.

Supporters of a yes vote say the amendments to the judiciary would diversify membership of the country's top legal institutions and break the stranglehold of Kemalist ideology in the justice system.

Furthermore, supporters say, the amendments would go a long way toward dismantling the undemocratic legacy of the 1980 military coup. "This is not a 'we, the people' constitution. It is an 'I, the military, protector of the state' constitution," said newspaper columnist Mustafa Akyol, referring to the current charter.

Turkey's main Kurdish party has called on Kurds to boycott Sunday's vote because the final proposed amendments did not include provisions lowering the 10 percent electoral threshold for representation in parliament or making party closures more difficult. It also failed to give more rights to minorities. Polls suggest that if Kurds break the boycott and do turn out, they are likely cast a yes vote.

Many Turks, though, shrug off the whole debate, which is likely to rage until the elections next spring. Ali Cimbiz, a street cleaner in Istanbul, said he just wants the demonstrations to end and the balloons and leaflets to go away.

"Yes, no, whatever. Enough," he said.

Tuysuz is a special correspondent.

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