Turkish Government Pushes Constitutional Reforms

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It's campaign season in Turkey, as the government pushes for public approval next month of a package of long-promised constitutional reforms. Democracy advocates say it's a positive step, though it represents only a fraction of what's needed. Some critics have focused on the government's failure to address the needs of the Kurdish minority, while others say the ruling AK Party hopes to ride a successful vote to another victory in elections expected next year.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Next month, voters in Turkey will have their say on a package of more than two dozen amendments to their constitution. The ruling AK Party and its supporters say the changes will move Turkey along the path to democracy. But opposition parties say some of the amendments will do anything but foster democracy, instead allowing the government to consolidate its power.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, both sides agree on one thing: The vote will be a strong barometer of the AK Party's chances in elections next year.

PETER KENYON: Lawmakers gathered in Ankara last month to hear Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's address on the upcoming referendum. Some were startled when the speech turned into an emotion plea to repudiate Turkey's bloody past, in particular the 1980 coup that saw hundreds of thousands of Turks arrests. Some were tortured, some disappeared, and some were executed.

Prime Minister RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Turkey): (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

KENYON: Erdogan grew tearful reading from a letter written by one young man before he was hanged by the military, and legislators from the AK Party were visibly moved. Opponents were not. They were angered that Erdogan would dredge up such painful memories to draw attention to the referendum.

There is strong support among Turks for changing the constitution that emerged from the coup. And Erdogan promised to deliver a new constitution when he was returned to power in 2007.

But the polarized state of Turkish politics, in particular suspicion among the secular opposition leaders about the AK Party's Islamic roots, blocked consensus, and what emerged is this package of amendments. Most of them are not controversial, but a few have brought Turkey's secularists to the streets.

(Soundbite of political protest)

Unidentified People: (Chanting in foreign language).

KENYON: Supporters of Turkey's largest opposition party gathered in Istanbul this month to hear their leader denounce the constitutional changes as a ploy by the ruling party to increase its influence under the guise of reforming the constitution.

Opposition activist Edol Shahin believes the amendments will bring Turkey's judiciary, long a bastion of secular authority, under the thumb of the ruling party. He also thinks voters should be given the chance to vote on each of the proposed changes.

Mr. EDOL SHAHIN (Activist): (Through translator) There are a lot of problems with it. Here are two big ones: They're trying to politicize the legal system, and they're asking 26 different questions, but we only get to give one answer.

KENYON: The yes campaign, which has also been drawing large crowds to its rallies, argues that Turkey's judiciary could use a little opening up and says allegations that the government wants to pack Turkey's courts are baseless.

Supporters also point out that in the past, such amendments have always been voted on as a package.

Professor Emrullah Uslu at Istanbul's Yeditepe University says in the context of Turkey's long drive toward democratization, the impact of these amendments will be incremental. He says the bigger question is whether the AK Party can use a victory on the referendum next month as a launching pad for a successful re-election campaign in parliamentary elections next year.

Professor EMRULLAH USLU (Yeditepe University): In terms of democracy, it's a small step to target the bureaucratic oligarchy, but it's going to be a big step toward the election in 2011.

KENYON: Yavuz Baydar, columnist with Today's Zaman newspaper, agrees that Prime Minster Erdogan is hoping to ride a win on the referendum into another term in office, at which point he will probably resume his efforts to get rid of the post-coup constitution entirely.

Mr. YAVUZ BAYDAR (Columnist, Today's Zaman): But whether or not there will be yes or no in this referendum, the very fact of Turkey needing a brand new, modern constitution will remain as a number one item on the agenda for the next national elections, which will take place next year.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

(Soundbite of applause)

As the yes and no campaigns enter the home stretch, voters like Aysal Yildiz have no doubt that they're witness the opening salvos in the next battle for control of the government.

Ms. AYSAL YILDIZ: (Speaking foreign language).

KENYON: If it's a no vote next month, she says, then the opposition may win, and the Erdogan era will be over. But she adds if it's a yes vote she leaves the sentence unfinished, tacitly conceding that a yes vote on September 12th could mean that Erdogan and the AK Party will continue their remarkable eight-year run in power for another term.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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