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Turks vote for constitutional amendments

Approval viewed as boost toward bid to join EU

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, left a polling station in Istanbul yesterday with his wife, Emine. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, left a polling station in Istanbul yesterday with his wife, Emine. (Burhan Ozbilici/ Associated Press)
By Christopher Torchia
Associated Press / September 13, 2010

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ISTANBUL — Turks approved sweeping changes to their military-era constitution yesterday, a referendum hailed by the government as a leap toward full democracy in line with its troubled bid to join the European Union.

With 99 percent of the vote counted, 58 percent had cast ballots in favor of the constitutional amendments, state-run TRT television said. About 42 percent voted no, heeding opposition contentions that the changes would shackle the independence of the courts.

The referendum on 26 amendments to a constitution that was crafted after a 1980 military coup had become a battleground between the Islamic-oriented government and traditional power elites that believe Turkey’s secular principles are under threat. It amounted to a vote of confidence in the ruling Justice and Development Party ahead of elections next year.

“We have crossed a historic threshold toward advanced democracy and the supremacy of law,’’ Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a nationally televised speech at his party headquarters in Istanbul.

“The regime of tutelage in Turkey will now come to an end,’’ he said. “The mentality will be so that those enthusiastic for military coups will see their enthusiasms stuck inside them.’’

Street clashes marred voting at several polling stations in provinces with large Kurdish populations. A Kurdish party had urged supporters to boycott the ballot, arguing that the proposed changes would not advance the rights of the ethnic minority.

Since Saturday, police nationwide detained 138 people suspected of threatening people into boycotting the vote or casting their ballot in a certain way, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said.

In Ankara, the Turkish capital, President Abdullah Gul appealed for harmony.

“From tomorrow onwards, Turkey needs to unite as one and look ahead,’’ Gul said after voting.

Political sparring, however, was unlikely to subside. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Action Party, a hard-line nationalist group, warned that the changes would weaken the state and embolden Kurdish rebels who seek autonomy. He said Turkey had entered “a dark era filled with critical risks and dangers.’’

Erdogan brushed aside concerns, saying his party now wanted to seek consensus for an entirely new constitution.

The party has already won two terms, delivering a measure of stability following years of coalition rule. In recent years, Turkey’s economy has blossomed. The nation has grown confident on the international stage, seeking a role as mediator and improving ties with Iran and other neighbors while maintaining its alliances in the West.

About 50 million Turks, or two-thirds of the population, were eligible to vote. Turnout was about 78 percent.

The date evoked Turkey’s traumatic past. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of a coup that curbed years of political and street chaos but led to widespread arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings, and Kurdish militants launched a rebellion a few years later that continues today. The military’s long shadow over Turkish politics has begun to wane only in the past few years.

The civilian government says the amendments fall in line with European Union requirements for membership, partly by making the military more accountable to civilian courts and allowing civil servants to go on strike.

The opposition, however, believes a provision that would give Parliament more say in appointing judges masks an attempt to control the courts, which have sparred with Erdogan’s camp.

The ruling party, whose changes have won backing from the EU, says the hard-line emphasis on secularism and nationalism must be updated to incorporate democratic change, including religious freedoms.

The constitutional amendments would also remove immunity from prosecution for the engineers of the 1980 coup.

Many Kurdish politicians said they would not vote because the amendments do not specifically address discrimination toward the minority, which constitutes up to 20 percent of the population. Kurdish rebels announced a suspension of attacks a month ago, but that unilateral cease-fire is due to expire Sept. 20. Fighting, however, has persisted.

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