Supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling… (Osman Orsal, Reuters )
Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey — Turkey's ruling Islamist party and its charismatic leader appeared to have scored a resounding victory Sunday in a divisive and closely watched referendum on constitutional changes that pitted the country's two main cultural camps against each other.
Preliminary results showed 58% of Turks approved changes to a constitution crafted by a military junta after a coup in the early 1980s.
Both government and opposition activists had elevated the referendum into a vote on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which espouses a blend of liberal democracy and Islam that rattles many secular Turks.
Erdogan said in a televised appearance before enthusiastic supporters that the country "passed a historic threshold" on its way democracy and vowed to seek more changes to the constitution, according to local media. "Supporters of military intervention and coups are the losers tonight."
The voting results slightly exceeded polling data and the AKP's expectations, giving Erdogan a boost ahead of general elections next year.
"The issue in this election was do you approve of Erdogan or not," said political scientist Ustun Erguder, founding director of the Istanbul Policy Center at Istanbul's Sabanci University. "And I think he'll sleep better tonight."
The 26-item package of reforms includes amendments to bar gender discrimination, bolster civil liberties, expand workplace rights, increase privacy rights and lift immunity from prosecution for those military leaders responsible for the 1980 coup.
But it also includes more controversial measures that grant elected officials and ordinary judges more power over the composition of the senior judiciary, which Erdogan and his allies regard as the last bastion of a fading secular elite. Opposition leaders see the changes as a power grab and warned of a civilian coup.
Despite a day of heavy rain, Turks turned out in droves for the referendum, with polling places at schools in the main cities swarming with voters from both camps. Officials said 77% of eligible voters participated despite a boycott call by Turkey's main ethnic Kurdish opposition party.
In the Fatih district of Istanbul, elderly men and women walking with canes labored up steps with the help of younger relatives to cast their ballots.
"We're voting to change our nation," said Vadullah Yasar, a 41-year-old businessman in the working-class district who went to the polling booth with his veiled wife. "This is the first step to change a constitution made by a military regime and not by the people."
In the upscale Bebek suburb, voters appeared equally determined to make their voices heard, creating a tangle of Range Rovers and Mercedeses in front of one balloting center.
"Nobody can deny they are working hard," Selin, a 30-year-old interior designer who declined to give her last name, said of Erdogan's party, which has overseen a period of dramatic economic growth since it came to power in late 2002. "But I don't think they're doing something good for the country. They want to put the judiciary system under their control."
Electoral maps on television screens showed a divided country: a secular Eurocentric crescent along the southwestern Aegean and Mediterranean seas largely opposed to the reforms and a pious, populous interior stretching deep into Turkey's east near the borders with Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Caucasus that for the most part backed Erdogan's changes.
Meanwhile Turkey's minority Kurds in some southeastern provinces largely heeded a call by the main Kurdish opposition party to boycott the vote, despite Erdogan's last-minute attempt to woo them by paying a rare visit to the Kurdish heartland. Local news outlets reported clashes at polling places in Kurdish provinces between supporters and opponents of the boycott.
Tens of thousands of Turks and Kurds have died in the quarter-century war between the government and Kurdish rebels, and the militant Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has vowed to resume its ongoing insurgency later this month after a brief halt.
"If you look at the distribution of the vote I think it shows how polarized Turkey is," said Gareth Jenkins, a senior fellow with the Silk Road Studies Program affiliated with Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. He has lived in Turkey for 21 years. "One of the challenges for the party is to decrease the tensions not only with the secular opposition but with the Kurds."