ANKARA (Reuters) – Turks voted on Sunday on whether to amend the constitution in a referendum that has turned into a fresh battle between the Islamist-rooted government and secular opponents over the future of democracy in the Muslim country.
A late opinion poll showed a clear majority of Turks backing the package, which includes changes to the judiciary. Other polls have shown the result too close to call, reflecting stark divisions ahead of 2011 elections in the EU candidate country.
The vote will test support for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan whose AK Party has pushed political and economic reforms, but is accused by the secular establishment of harboring Islamist ambitions.
Erdogan has said the changes to a charter drafted in the 1980s after a military coup exactly 30 years ago are needed to strengthen democracy and bring Turkey closer to European norms.
The secularist opposition does not dispute that some changes are necessary, but says the proposals would also open the way for the AK party to take over the courts after building up a strong power base within the state during eight years in office.
With the military’s once-formidable power clipped by EU-driven reforms, the high courts have become the last redoubt of a conservative secularist establishment.
The package includes 26 articles. Most are seen as progressive and uncontroversial, including one that would make the military more answerable to civilian courts.
But the proposed changes to the make-up of the Constitutional Court, and the High Board of Judges and Prosecutors, a state body charged with appointing magistrates, raise concerns over the future independence of the judiciary.
CLUE TO NEXT ELECTION
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in eastern Turkey and at 8 a.m. in the rest of the country; polls close at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) in the east and at 5 p.m. in the rest of the country.
The executive European Commission has backed Ankara’s attempt to reorganize the judiciary, but accused the government on Tuesday of stifling public debate over the proposals.
Erdogan’s pro-business AK Party evolved from a series of Islamist parties banned by the courts, but denies having any aims to roll back the republic’s traditional secularism.
Since winning power in 2002, AK has overseen a period of record economic growth and relative stability in a country with a history of financial mismanagement and political upheaval.
It has also reoriented the NATO member’s foreign policy, deepening ties with Iran, Syria and Iraq while criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Investors will look at the referendum result for any clue to Erdogan’s chances of forming a single-party government for a third consecutive term after an election due by July next year.
A “no” vote might galvanize the opposition, spark a market sell-off and encourage the government to go on a spending spree in a bid to boost support, endangering fiscal discipline.
Analysts say polarization over the referendum reflects Turkey’s fractured political landscape, in which a rising middle class of observant Muslims who form the backbone of the AK have challenged a secular elite which has traditionally held power since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923.