Turkey votes in referendum on changes to constitution crafted after 1980 military coup

By Christopher Torchia, AP
Sunday, September 12, 2010

Turkey votes in referendum to amend constitution

ISTANBUL — Turks voted Sunday on whether to amend a military-era constitution in what the government says is a key step toward EU-style democracy, despite opposition claims that the proposed reforms would shackle the independence of the courts.

The referendum on 26 amendments to a constitution that was crafted after a 1980 military coup has become a battleground between the Islamic-oriented government and traditional power elites that believe Turkey’s secular principles are under threat. The outcome will set the stage for elections next year in a strategically-located NATO ally whose regional clout has surged in recent years.

Street clashes marred voting at several polling stations in provinces with large Kurdish populations. A Kurdish party has urged supporters to boycott the ballot, arguing that the proposed changes would not advance the rights of the ethnic minority.

Police nationwide detained 120 people suspected of threatening people into either boycotting the vote or casting their ballot in a certain way, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said.

In Ankara, the Turkish capital, President Abdullah Gul appealed for harmony.

“From tomorrow onwards, Turkey needs to unite as one, and look ahead. Turkey should focus all its energy on the issues its people are facing and the future of the country,” he said after voting. “The public has the final say in democracies. I would like to remind everyone to welcome the result with respect and maturity.”

Voting stations close at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT, 9 a.m. EDT) in eastern Turkey, and 5 p.m. (1400 GMT, 10 a.m. EDT) elsewhere in the country, with results expected in the evening. About 50 million Turks, or two-thirds of the population, were eligible to vote. Some surveys indicate the referendum will pass; others have pointed to a tight contest.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan voted in Istanbul with his wife and daughter, posing for the media with the envelope in his hands and saying the referendum was an important step for Turkish democracy.

The date evoked Turkey’s traumatic past. Sunday was the 30th anniversary of a coup that curbed years of political and street chaos but led to widespread arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, and Kurdish militants launched a rebellion a few years later that continues today. The military’s long shadow over Turkish politics has begun to wane only in the last few years.

The civilian government says the amendments fall in line with EU requirements for membership, partly by making the military more accountable to civilian courts and allowing civil servants to go on strike. The opposition, however, believes a provision that would give parliament more say in appointing judges masks an attempt to control the courts, which have sparred with Erdogan’s camp.

The military and the court system, including the Constitutional Court, have sought to uphold the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded Turkey in 1923, and the ruling Justice and Development Party has been accused of plotting to undo those principles.

The ruling party, whose reforms have won backing from the European Union, says the hardline emphasis on secularism and nationalism must be updated to incorporate democratic change, including religious freedoms. It lost a battle in 2008 when the Constitutional Court struck down a government-backed amendment lifting a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in universities.

If approved, the constitutional amendments would also remove immunity from prosecution for the engineers of the 1980 coup. Kenan Evren, the military chief who seized power and became president, is 93 and ailing.

Many Kurdish politicians said they would not vote because the amendments do not specifically address discrimination toward the minority, which comprises up to 20 percent of the population. Kurdish rebels announced a suspension of attacks a month ago, but that unilateral cease-fire is due to expire on Sept. 20.

On Sunday, in the Mediterranean city of Mersin, a group of masked Kurdish youths threw fire bombs and torched a car and a van outside a polling station, the Dogan news agency reported.

In the nearby town of Akdeniz, police used pepper gas to disperse stone-throwing Kurdish protesters near a polling station. At least 10 people were detained, the Anatolia news agency said.

Police also clashed with protesters suspected of forcing people into boycotting the vote in the southeastern province of Batman, Anatolia said. Six police officers were injured and four protesters were detained.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser and Ceren Kumova in Ankara contributed to this report.

will not be displayed