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Turkey Split Over Referendum on Changes to Constitution

  • Dorian Jones

This weekend, Turks will go to the polls to vote on a package of reforms the government says will strengthen democracy and bring the 1982 Constitution more in line with European norms - a key issue in Turkey's quest to join the European Union. But the opposition claims the government is pushing the amendments to increase control over the nation's courts.

"Vote Yes" for a new Turkish democracy is the message of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, before Sunday's referendum.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is campaigning across the country, is keeping his message simple - the vote is an opportunity for the people to bury the present constitution, which was written by the country's military rulers in 1982.

"The decision is yours," said Mr. Erdogan. "On the one hand we have the coup constitution; on the other hand, we have the constitution of the people."

The reforms would increase the power of the civilian courts over military courts, and analysts say it could pave the way for the trial of leaders of the 1980 military coup that led to the arrest, torture and extrajudicial killing of many Turkish activists.

Cengiz Aktar is a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University:

"Substance wise, it is clear these amendments go very far against the spirit of the 1982 Constitution," said Cengiz Aktar. "Its content is very far reaching, especially regarding the military interference in the political life and the interference of the judiciary in the political life."

The rights of women and trade unions are also extended under the proposed changes. But not everyone accepts the idea that Sunday's vote will enhance Turkish democracy.

The country's two main opposition parties - from the the right and left of the political spectrum - oppose the judicial reforms because they say the parliament and the president would have greater control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors.

The courts have been the traditional guardians of the secular society in Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the country in 1923, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

If the referendum passes, the number of Constitutional Court justices would increase from 11 to 17. A council that oversees prosecutors and judges would increase from seven to 22 members, four of whom would be appointed by the president.

The head of Turkey's Court of Appeals, Hasan Gerçeker, warns against adopting the proposed reforms.

This article safeguards the superiority of laws, basic rights and freedoms as well as the social and secular rule of law," he says. With the constitutional amendments, he adds, the conflict between the courts and the executive power will increase, as the amendments ignore the courts' will and cut their authority within the judiciary.

The government accuses the courts of protecting a small, secular elite and says the reforms will democratize the judiciary.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu is the new leader of the country's largest pro-secular political force, the Republican People's Party. In campaigning against the proposed constitutional changes, he is focusing on issues of corruption, poverty and unemployment in Turkey.

Kilicdaroglu asked a crowd of farmers in southern Turkey recently whether after eight years of AK party rule, they are better off. The farmers answer back with a resounding, "No."

According to public opinion surveys, as many as 90 percent of Turks are unfamiliar with the proposed constitutional changes.

Political analyst Cengiz Aktar says that means the referendum is no longer about the reforms.

"Of course, it is not a referendum," he said. "It is a plebiscite 'Yes' or 'No' to the ruling AKP. When you ask this sort of very complicated question to the public, it is not a referendum anymore. This, unfortunately, is the major shortcoming of the referendum."

At the start of the campaign, the government claimed comfortable lead, with Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc predicting that more than 60 percent voter would favor the reforms. But opinion polls have tracked a steady decline since then, with most now saying the result is too close to call.

Political columnist Nuray Mert says the narrow margin reveals a division within Turkish society.

"Everyone believes the margin will be very little and that will mean that Turkey is divided in half," said Nuray Mert. "On anything, the Kurdish question, again Turkey is divided into two. On secularism and conservatism, it is divided between half and half. On the definition of secularism and definition of democracy, people have strongly different opinions from each other and the gap between the two camps is widening each day, which makes Turkey a country of crisis and it will not going to be solved in near future."

Analysts say the outcome of Sunday's referendum could lie with the country's Kurdish minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the population. The main pro-Kurdish political party, the Peace and Democracy Party, is calling for a boycott of the vote, saying that the reforms do not address Kurdish issues.