Turkey votes for sweeping reforms

Turkish voters approved yesterday the most comprehensive reform of their country's constitution since it was written under military rule in 1982.

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ISTANBUL // Turkish voters approved yesterday the most comprehensive reform of their country's constitution since it was written under military rule in 1982. In doing so, they handed a new political triumph to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, and shrugged off warnings by the opposition of an undemocratic power grab by the religiously conservative government.

Projections by Turkish news channels gave the yes votes about 58 per cent, with 42 per cent rejecting Mr Erdogan's plan. Turnout was put at nearly 77 per cent. The outcome was a victory for Mr Erdogan, who said the referendum was a "turning point" for Turkish democracy. "The winner is democracy, also those who said No have won," the prime minister told a crowd of cheering supporters in Istanbul. "The loser is the spirit of coup d'états," Mr Erdogan added in a reference to parts of the reform package designed to weaken the power of the military. Turkey's armed forces have toppled four governments in the last 50 years, and the referendum took place on the 30th anniversary of the coup of September 12, 1980. Today's constitution was written under military rule two years later.

"It was a vote of confidence in the government," Tarhan Erdem, a pollster, told the NTV news channel. The apparent result was a stinging defeat for the Republican People's Party, or CHP, Turkey's main opposition party, which hoped to turn the referendum into a broadside against the government. Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, are accused by critics of following a secret agenda to turn Turkey into a Islamist state, which the AKP denies. The official results are expected today. In a heated and sometimes aggressive campaign before the referendum, the deep divisions in Turkish society between supporters and opponents of the government had come to the surface. Mr Erdogan said opponents of the reform bill were coup supporters, while the opposition claimed a Yes vote would turn Turkey into a police state. Even before voting ended, Abdullah Gul, the president, called on his country to overcome the bitter polarisation between supporters and opponents of the government. "From tomorrow, everyone in Turkey has to get together and look ahead," Mr Gul said after casting his vote in Ankara. Voters could only approve or reject the complete package of 26 amendments. The government plans approved by the voters include reforms to strengthen the rights of women, children, the disabled and trade unions and to weaken the political power of the military, a plan also welcomed by the European Union, which Turkey wants to join. One symbolic step is to strip the leaders of the 1980 coup of a special immunity that has shielded them from prosecution for human-rights violations. More than 600,000 people were arrested after the coup, and thousands were tortured. While some amendments were supported by a sizeable majority, others were much more controversial. Among them were changes to the structures of the constitutional court and of a body charged with hiring and firing judges and prosecutors. Critics say the changes that will go into effect threaten the independence of the judiciary, generally seen as an institution opposed to Mr Erdogan's rule. Reports from the Kurdish south-east of Turkey said many voters stayed at home following a boycott appeal by the Party for Peace and Democracy, or BDP, the country's main Kurdish party. The BDP said it wanted its voters to stay away from the referendum because the constitutional changes proposed by the government did not take Kurdish interests into account. The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a rebel group fighting for Kurdish self rule since 1984, also supported the boycott, and there were reports that PKK members were using threats and violence to prevent Kurds from voting. Police in the Kurdish region arrested more than 50 suspected activists accused of threatening citizens who were planning to vote despite the boycott call. Suspected opponents of the referendum threw fire bombs in front of polling stations in the southern city of Mersin and in Istanbul, media reports said. Voters who were escorted to polling stations by police in Mersin came under attack from stone-throwers. In a twist that added to the opposition woes, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, could not cast his vote. According to a CHP statement, Mr Kilicdaroglu was taken from the electoral roll in Istanbul after he moved to Ankara. Mr Kilicdaroglu did not keep track of his registration as a voter and assumed he could cast his vote anywhere in Turkey as a parliamentary deputy, the CHP added. But he overlooked that election authorities recently scrapped this special voting right for deputies. CHP supporters had been hoping Mr Kilicdaroglu, who was elected chairman after a long-time party leader, Deniz Baykal, stepped down because of a sex scandal this year, could bring the party back to power after decades in opposition. The CHP, created by Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ruled the country from 1923 until the introduction of multiparty democracy in the late 1940s, but has been out of government since the late 1970s. Turkey's next general elections are about 10 months away. tseibert@thenational.a