Constitutional Amendments Approved In Turkey

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Voters in Turkey approved sweeping changes to the country's military-era constitution on Sunday. The referendum was hailed by the government as a move toward full democracy.


Turkey's voters went to the polls yesterday and approved sweeping changes in the country's constitution. Turkey's prime minister hailed it as a win for democracy, but the vote underlines the complexity of mixing democracy with religion. Secular Turks see this as another triumph for a ruling party that has its roots in Islam. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the endorsement of these 26 reforms by 58 percent of Turkey's voters a historic turning point in the country's march toward full democracy. He also promised a fresh effort to completely rewrite the old constitution, drafted in the wake of a military coup.

For much of the public, the actual effect of these reforms remains a mystery, so yesterday's vote was treated as a referendum on Erdogan and the A-K Party after eight years in power.

At one Istanbul polling station yesterday, an early afternoon downpour drove even the smokers inside. As voters shook the rain off their clothes and made their way toward the voting area, Rabia Tutash, a soft-spoken woman in a headscarf, paused on the stairs to explain why she would be voting evet, or yes, and why she thinks the no camp is so strongly opposed.

M: (Through translator) Yes, I think the time for change has come, so it's time to act. I think it's a matter of trust. For some people, the ones who had most of the rights until now, it feels like their rights are being restricted or taken away. But in fact, this will bring more rights for all of us.

KENYON: Some of the reforms will bring Turkey closer to European norms on issues such as personal privacy or labor rights. But a few provoked strong criticism from Turkey's secular opposition parties. They warned that the A-K Party is again chipping away at the secular institutions that have dominated Turkish life for nearly a century.

As the rain eased, 50-year-old Ulku Callea stood beneath her umbrella and spoke of her misgivings. The proposal to give the government more say in appointing judges and prosecutors, for instance, seem more for the ruling party's benefit than the country's.

M: (Through translator) I think they're trying to impose this thing on us - which to me, is not a sign of democracy. This should have been dealt with by parliament, not put to a vote. I also think it's wrong to take the judiciary, which should be independent, and put it under control of the politicians. So for all these reasons - no, no, no.

KENYON: Erdogan spends a good deal of his time reassuring secular Turks that he doesn't let his own religious faith interfere in running the state. People like Dr. Hicran Goltz have never believed him, and she fears this referendum is one more step toward undermining the secular Turkey she wants to live in.

D: I'm scared because he holds most of the power in this allegedly democratic Turkey. But he's not. Nothing can control this guy.

KENYON: Analysts say the decisive win confirms Erdogan as the most popular and effective politician in Turkey today, and shows that the majority of Turks still have confidence in him, even if the country's bid to join the European Union has stalled.

But there are signs of trouble ahead as Erdogan seeks a third term in office next year. In heavily Kurdish districts, turnout was down sharply yesterday, a show of dismay from Kurds that there were no reforms for them in the referendum. A Kurdish rebel cease-fire is due to expire in a matter of days. And the bitter, partisan fight over these reforms shows that after eight years in power, Erdogan has yet to bridge the gap between religious and secular Turks.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.


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