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Some see Turkey's secularism at stake in Sept. 12 referendum

Turks vote Sunday on 26 far-reaching constitutional amendments put forward by the ruling party, which some suspect of trying to erase the Muslim country's secularism.

By Staff writer / September 10, 2010

A huge 'EVET = Yes' poster by the Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen near the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, two days ahead of a referendum on changes to the constitution that was crafted in the wake of Turkey's 1980 military coup.

Ibrahim Usta/AP


Istanbul, Turkey

Turks are preparing to vote on a package of far-reaching constitutional changes Sunday, in what has turned into a referendum on the country’s Islamic-leaning ruling party.

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Critics say the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is bent on an Islamist agenda, and wants to erase modern Turkey’s secular traditions, further weaken once-hallowed state institutions like the military, and manipulate the judiciary to increase its own power.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers have argued that their sole aim is to liberalize the 1982 constitution, imposed after a military coup, by democratizing the state in line with European standards, while better protecting the rights of every citizen.

Mr. Erdogan called the vote the “most important” event in Turkey’s recent political history. But despite eight years in power – during which Turkey became the world's 15th-largest economy – the AKP has not been able to bridge the social, political, and economic divisions enough to stave off public mistrust of its intentions.

Polls suggest the amendments will pass, though by a small margin – a result that analysts say would likely entrench current problems.

“A slim majority will not be sufficient to put an end to the debates, if anything it will inflame the debate further and will show just how divided the country is,” says Semih Idiz, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper. “If it’s in the middle somewhere… people might say we’ve just replaced a military constitution with an AKP constitution.”

The vote has “turned into an indication of the government’s lack of support or not; it’s got nothing to do with the Constitution at this stage,” says Mr. Idiz

26 amendments

On many of the 26 amendments, there is little controversy.

In line with European Union requirements – Turkey has for decades aimed to become a member of the European club – there are special protections for children, women, and other vulnerable citizens, and improvements in civil society such as greater ability for workers to strike.

But other points have drawn more criticism, such as changes that would grant more power to elected officials to shape key judicial bodies that have long been conservative bastions, such as the Constitutional Court and High Council for Judges and Public Prosecutors.

“Some of the changes – like changing the [makeup] of the judiciary – make some believe that what the government is doing here is securing its own future, because there are key elements of democracy that are not there,” says Idiz, criticizing the "veneer of democracy" presented by the AKP. “If you are going all out for democracy, then one would assume the first thing you would do would is guarantee the freedom of expression, and that is certainly not the case."