SEVEN YEARS after a military coup, the fourth in the republic's 60-year history, Turkey is still trying to loosen, one by one, the restraints left over from military rule. The generals, who toppled the government in 1980 to put a stop to escalating terrorism and internal anarchy, turned power over to Prime Minister Turgut Ozal's parliamentary government in 1983. But they shielded Mr. Ozal from opposition by banning from political activity almost all the leading figures of pre-coup politics, including two former prime ministers -- conservative Suleyman Demirel, whom they had deposed, and Social Democrat Bulent Ecevit. Since 1983 Turkish politics has been slowly changing for the better, and this month Turks voted narrowly in a nationwide referendum to lift the ban on these two politicians along with about 100 others. This will allow Mr. Demirel and Mr. Ecevit to run against Mr. Ozal for prime minister in general elections called for Nov. 1.

The margin in favor of lifting the bans was tiny -- less than one-fourth of 1 percent -- but that result, ironically, may be the one most likely to promise both democracy and stability in the future. Mr. Ozal, who has led considerable economic improvement but still has a good distance to go, had campaigned openly against lifting the ban, fearing too strong an electoral challenge from his former rivals. Though his campaign reflected badly on him and his party, and ultimately failed, the sizable "no" vote indicates the dimensions of his support. In any event, the outcome of the referendum is an aura of increased democratic openness that should boost Turkey's efforts to get into the European Economic Community, which has made Turkey's constraints on democracy a major impediment to membership.

Not all those who voted "no" will be automatic supporters of Mr. Ozal. Nor do all the "yes" votes imply opposition to him. Rather, they reflect the referendum's broader accomplishment: the demonstration that there is a genuine thirst in Turkey for democracy and for acceptance as a democracy by the West.