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Turkish voters approve amendments in referendum that indicated confidence in nation's leader

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By Gul Tuysuz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 11:15 PM

Turkish voters on Sunday approved a package of constitutional amendments in a referendum that was considered as much a decision on changing the Turkish constitution as a vote of confidence in the nation's leader.

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The referendum was the latest move in a political battle between Turkey's secularist establishment and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The passage of the constitutional changes by 58 percent of voters gives AKP renewed vigor as it prepares for general elections next spring. Some analysts predicted that Erdogan's party would move the date of the elections forward to take advantage of the momentum it gained with Sunday's yes vote.

Most of the 26 amendments were not controversial. But changes such as one that would give the ruling party more power in appointing judges worried secular voters, who see the judiciary as an important check on executive power.

In his speech to a jubilant crowd of supporters after Sunday's referendum, Erdogan made overtures toward those opponents, who fear that he is threatening Turkey's democratic principles and their way of life.

"Today both those who said yes and those who said no have won because democracy is for everyone,'' he said.

Backers of the changes saw passage of the referendum as an important step in shifting the country away from its tradition of governance by a deeply entrenched secular establishment safeguarded by the military.

"It's the first time a constitution is being written by someone other than the military,'' said Ferhat Kentel, a pro-AKP sociologist and activist.

Many among the 42 percent of voters who rejected the package are concerned the AKP will be free to pursue a more Islamist agenda, which they fear includes repealing the secular reforms of Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan, and to some extent the AKP, has had trouble convincing a skeptical secular camp in Turkey that they have broken with their Islamist past and have embraced a more secular philosophy. The opposition Nationalist Movement Party leader, Devlet Bahceli, called the results a "dark moment in history."

A large portion of the public was not aware of the content of the proposed changes to the constitution. Polls leading up to the referendum suggest that nearly 50 percent of the public could not name a single amendment. Nonetheless, about 78 percent of Turkey's electorate turned out to vote on Sunday, exceeding by a considerable margin the 66 percent turnout for the previous referendum three years ago.

AKP, in addition to winning almost total loyalty from its base, managed to attract considerable support from voters across the spectrum of Turkish politics who wanted the constitution that had been put in place after a 1980 military coup to be changed.

"The period that began with the 1980 junta is over," Erdogan said "What has lost tonight is the junta mentality.''

The losing side, led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the newly elected leader of the People's Republican Party (CHP), which is the main opposition party in Turkey's Parliament, had campaigned vigorously against the constitutional changes."Turkey cannot continue on its path with a decision that only one out of two people approve of," said Kilicdaroglu in a speech after the results.

It was largely the efforts of the CHP that cast Sunday's vote in the public's mind as a referendum on the AKP's popularity, a charge Erdogan denied both in the lead up to the referendum and again in his speech celebrating the passage of the package Sunday evening. Although the referendum galvanized the CHP and its base, Kilicdaroglu is likely to have trouble even from within his own party in the run up to the general elections, analysts said.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party called for a boycott of the referendum to highlight the shortcomings of the constitutional amendments on guaranteeing more rights for Kurds. Erdogan has been making overtures to the Kurds ahead of general elections but low turn out in predominantly Kurdish regions suggests that he is unlikely to get a large Kurdish vote.

Gul Tuysuz is a special correspondent.


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