ANKARA (AFP) – Turkish voters on Sunday approved divisive constitutional changes to reshape the judiciary and curb the military’s powers, handing the Islamist-rooted government a major political victory.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said provisional results showed that some 58 percent of the voters backed the amendments in the referendum, hailing the outcome as a “turning point” for Turkish democracy.
“We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of law… September 12 will go down in history as a turning point,” Erdogan told a crowd of jubilant supporters at his party’s office in Istanbul.
Turnout was between 77 and 78 percent, he said.
The CNN Turk news channel projected the final result at 57.6 percent, with official figures expected Monday.
The outcome came as a huge boost for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of general elections next year, in which the party, the moderate offshoot of a banned Islamist movement, will seek a third straight term in power.
The secularist opposition had campaigned against the amendments, charging that they masked an AKP quest to take control of the judiciary and assert an authoritarian grip on power.
The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, had welcomed the reform move as a “step in the right direction” but expressed reservations over provisions increasing government influence on the judiciary.
In a message of reconciliation, Erdogan refused to take the result as the exclusive success of his party, extending thanks also to supporters of other parties who backed the package and embracing the “no” voters.
“Those who said ‘yes’ and those who said ‘no’ are equally winners because advanced democracy is for everybody,” he said. “The losers are the coup supporters and those resisting change.”
The AKP, he said, would seek a compromise with the opposition for further constitutional reforms.
Analysts however warned the substantial “no” vote — some 42 percent — confirmed that Turkey remains deeply polarised and prone to political tensions.
“A constitution rejected by 40-odd percent of the people is a big problem. You cannot just dismiss those as coup supporters… Turkey is facing difficult times,” said Riza Turmen, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party withheld an immediate reaction on the vote, while the second opposition force, the Nationalist Action Party, said Turkey was “entering a dark period full with risks and dangers” and urged early elections.
The referendum fell on the 30th anniversary of the 1980 coup, one of four military interventions that have unseated elected governments in Turkey since 1960, which produced the current constitution.
Unrest marred voting in some regions where militant groups harassed and stoned fellow Kurds who rejected a boycott call from the main Kurdish party and turned out to vote.
Police used truncheons and tear gas to disperse rioters and detained about 90 people in seven cities, Anatolia news agency reported.
The opposition argued the AKP — its democratic credentials already under mounting criticism — designed the amendments to propel its cronies to senior judicial posts, control the courts and dilute Turkey’s secular system.
The 26-article package aims to restructure the higher echelons of the judiciary, a secularist bastion at loggerheads with the government.
The most controversial provisions modify the make-up of the Constitutional Court and the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors, and the way their members are elected.
The package also curbs the powers of the once-untouchable military, already humbled amid sprawling probes into alleged plans to unseat the AKP that have landed dozens of soldiers in court.
The AKP narrowly escaped being outlawed by the Constitutional Court for undermining Turkey’s secular system in 2008.
Top courts have also often blocked AKP-sponsored legislation, including a bill that would have abolished a ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities.
Other provisions limit the powers of military courts and abolish an article providing a judicial shield for the 1980 coup leaders.
The package also gives civil servants the right to collective bargaining, but not the right to strike, and emphasises women’s and children’s rights.