Turkish government campaigns for Sept. 12 referendum on changes to military-era constitution

By Christopher Torchia, AP
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Turkey gears up for referendum

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s justice minister said Tuesday that a September referendum on changes to the military-era constitution would accelerate democratic change in a country struggling with internal challenges even as it asserts itself on the international stage.

The debate over amendments to the 1982 constitution has become a battleground between Turkey’s government, led by a rising class of pious Muslims, and staunchly secular circles that once held the lion’s share of power and suspect the push for a referendum masks a political agenda. Political observers say the Sept. 12 referendum could turn into a vote of confidence on the government ahead of a general election next year.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin described the reforms, which would make the military more accountable to civilian courts as well as give parliament a say in appointing judges, as a critical step in Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union. The military and the courts are traditional guardians of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the country in 1923 after the Ottoman imperial collapse.

“We are at present undergoing a serious reform and transformation process. Turkey is changing. We are trying to raise the standards of our democracy,” Ergin told foreign media representatives at a lunch in Istanbul.

Without providing specifics, he warned that the campaign faced opposition from “forces” fearing a loss of power. “Political circles, from the judiciary, from the administration, from anywhere — all the forces that resist change can fall under this definition,” said the minister, a founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

In a separate case, a court last week ordered 102 people, including at least three retired military commanders, to be jailed pending trial on charges of conspiring in 2003 to overthrow the government.

Turkey has made international strides in recent years, expanding trade with neighbors and refining a foreign policy that enhances its strategic role as a Western ally while cultivating closer ties with traditional Western foes such as Iran and Syria. For all its regional clout and relative stability, Turkey still has deep social strains, and currently faces an upsurge in violence by Kurdish rebels.

On Monday, gunmen killed four police officers in a town in the southern province of Hatay, and suspicion fell on Kurdish rebels who say they want more rights for their ethnic kin. An angry crowd attacked the local office of a pro-Kurdish political party, and police fired in the air to disperse the mob.

Last week, Turkey’s parliament passed an amendment to soften an anti-terrorism law that had been used to jail Kurdish minors involved in violent protests in support of Kurdish guerrillas. The measure reduces or waives jail terms for youths convicted of throwing stones at police.

Ergin said 200 children had been in jail under the law, and that another 2,000 to 3,000 faced legal proceedings that could have led to jail time.

“We wanted to make sure that nobody took advantage of these children,” he said, noting that the plight of the youths was used to criticize the government over the Kurdish issue.

Polls have indicated that voters will approve the constitutional amendments, but the gap appears to be narrowing. Public discontent with the surge in Kurdish violence is viewed as one factor that could hurt the government’s campaign.

The 1982 constitution was ratified in a referendum after a military coup two years earlier.

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