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Turkey referendum shaping up as dress rehearsal for next year

The vote on constitutional amendments related to the judiciary is seen as a battle between the country's Islamic and secular ideals.

September 11, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey — A referendum Sunday over whether to enact major changes to Turkey's judiciary has turned into a battle over the country's identity, pitting the governing Islamic party against its secular opponents.

The opposition has criticized some of the proposed constitutional amendments as a power grab by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which has oriented Turkey's foreign policy away from the West and toward the Muslim world.

Many of the proposed changes appear in line with the country's aim to iron out kinks in its legal and political system in its lagging bid to join the European Union. But with their rhetoric and politicking, supporters and opponents of the amendments have elevated the vote to a dress rehearsal for general elections next year — in which Erdogan hopes to secure a third term — not to mention a referendum on the rift that defines Turkish politics.

"It has evolved into a confrontation between the two cultural camps in Turkey," said Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University. "Not only the outcome, but the margin of victory will show which side has how much support."

Preparations for the vote were visible on huge posters all over Istanbul on Saturday. Political parties had set up tables, tents and loudspeakers calling on voters to cast ballots. In airports, voting booths were placed just past the immigration counters to allow Turks living abroad to fly in, cast ballots and immediately head back home.

Though a majority Muslim nation, Turkey was founded on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire as a strictly secular republic oriented toward the West. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization member at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, it's home to a major U.S. air base and has emerged as a significant economic and political power in the Middle East.

But some in the West have grown worried by the rise of the AKP, as Erdogan's party is known. The moderate Islamist party has bolstered relations with Iran and Syria and criticized Israel's treatment of Palestinians, especially after an incident at sea this year in which a number of Turkish activists aboard a Gaza aid flotilla were killed by Israeli commandos.

The 26 proposed constitutional changes would make the army more accountable to civilian courts and give elected officials and ordinary judges more power to pick senior judges, who have been a thorn in the Erdogan government's side.

Critics say the proposed changes include some that would strip the judiciary of its role in overseeing the executive branch. But some of the proposals appear in line with the country's steady path away from its autocratic past and have been praised by human rights activists and Western leaders.

The changes would bolster privacy rights, grant civil servants the right to strike, lift the immunity from prosecution of those military leaders responsible for a 1980 coup in which dozens were killed and thousands of leftists and Islamists jailed.

Nearly 50 million Turks are expected to take part in the vote Sunday, the 30th anniversary of the coup, which continues to haunt the country. For decades, the military and allied interests in the state bureaucracy kept a tight grip on power, pushing back any efforts by democratically elected politicians to tinker with the country's pro-Western foreign policy or its strictly enforced separation of religion and state.

After the 1980 coup, the country's ruling junta imposed a constitution in 1982 that has been widely criticized as curtailing human rights. Over the last few years, Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul who was a political prisoner as recently as 1998, failed to muster opposition support for a new draft of the constitution. The proposed amendments failed to receive a two-thirds majority this year but got enough votes to trigger this weekend's plebiscite.

Most analysts expect the amendments to be approved, with supporters in Turkey's vast Anatolian interior, home to an emerging, pious middle-class elite, outnumbering secular-minded urbanites in and around Istanbul and the Marmara region in the country's west.

Independent surveys suggest the margin of victory will be slim and has been shrinking in recent days, and even a narrow victory for Erdogan could be interpreted as a sign that support for the AKP is softening.

But some experts say the referendum's significance for the political balance has been overstated.

"Even if Erdogan loses the referendum with 49% of the vote, it doesn't mean that the AKP will lose in the next elections," said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I don't think this is a decisive moment in Turkish history."

Erdogan has accused his opponents of unfairly tarnishing the proposed changes for political advantage without assessing them on their merits. In an interview with the BBC, he spoke of "a flood of disinformation and black propaganda."

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