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Analysts: Kurds Could Determine Result of Vote on Turkey's Constitutional Reforms

This Sunday, Turkish voters will go the polls to decide on a package of constitutional reforms. The prime minister says the vote is an opportunity to democratize the country. But the country's main opposition says the reforms are a government power grab of the judiciary. Public opinion surveys show that Turkey is split on the proposed changes and that the country's large Kurdish population might determine the outcome.

Last Friday, as many as 20,000 cheering Kurds greeted Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the heart of Diyarbakir, Turkey's largest city in its predominantly Kurdish southeast. Analysts say Mr. Erdogan's visit was crucial in his bid to win this Sunday's referendum on reforming the country's constitution. The government's lead has steadily eroded in recent weeks. And the latest public opinion polls say the vote is too close to call.

Addressing the crowd, Mr. Erdogan reminded them that the present constitution was written by the generals of the 1980 coup. "The September 12th coup was a big blow to democracy," the prime minister said. "People were killed in the street," he added, "People simply disappeared. If only the walls of the Diyarbakir prison could talk."

Mr. Erdogan used his Diyarbakir speech to announce the city's prison will be closed. The facility is associated with some of the worst excesses of Turkey's military rule.

The proposed constitutional reforms include lifting the legal immunity of those who carried out the 1980 coup. Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahcesehir University says Kurds have more reasons than most to vote for the reforms.

"I mean I don't think any Kurd would vote 'no' because they agree with the content with the amendment package. They agree with the fact the putschists will be prosecuted, at least their immunity will be lifted. So I think it's extremely important as Kurds suffered probably the most out of this coup d'etat of 12th of September 1980," Aktar said.

But critics of Mr. Erdogan's campaign say he is ignoring Kurdish demands. The main Kurdish political party, the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, is calling for the Kurdish language be used in schools and for greater local autonomy. The BDP also is calling for Kurds to be recognized in the constitution. Until these demands are met, the party is calling for a boycott of Sunday's vote.

The BDP is campaigning for a boycott of the referendum across southeastern Turkey. Addressing supporters, Gulten Kisanak, joint leader of BDP, says the vote has nothing to do with Kurds.

"Where are the Kurdish people," he asks. "Why in your constitution package there is not even a single sentence about us? We ignore those who ignore us!."

The BDP mayor of Diyarbakir, Osman Baydemir, who was re-elected this year, has threatened to resign if more than half of city votes in the referendum. Mr. Erdogan has condemned the boycott as undemocratic.

The boycott is the latest clash between the BDP and the ruling Justice and Development Party, which are the main political rivals in the region.

"The government is constantly identifying them as marginal, and [and that they] only have limited power in the region and they are using force and violence to achieve this power. Otherwise, people in the region are ready to support the government. And now, the BDP needs to show the opposite picture by showing their strength in the region in this referendum to attract the attention of all parties in Turkey and international attention; they are the speakers of people in the region," said Political columnist, Nuray Mert.

For 25 years, southeastern Turkey has been the center of conflict between rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, and the Turkish state. The PKK is fighting for greater Kurdish rights. Mr. Erdogan refused to include the BDP in his initiative last year to end the conflict, accusing the party of being part of the problem, not the solution.

Public opinion polls indicate that Sunday's vote is too close to call. Analysts say the number of Kurds who vote in Sunday's referendum will be a key test of strength for the government in the region. And Kurdish turnout, they say, could determine the outcome of the referendum.