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Turkey's Government Encouraged by Referendum Results

Dorian Jones | Istanbul, Turkey 13 September 2010

The government in Turkey secured a decisive victory in a referendum on its reforms to the constitution. The result has been positively received internationally, but opponents accuse the government of seeking to undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Thousands of supporters joined with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in celebrating the "Yes" vote in Sunday's referendum for constitutional reform. The size of the victory came as a surprise to many, and in addressing his supporters Mr. Erdogan was eager to appear magnanimous in victory.

Prime Minister Erdogan said 12 September will go down in history as a turning point in Turkish democracy. He told the crowd, "You will be always be remembered for this." He said the date of 12 September was tainted with a constitution from a coup, but has now been turned on to a bright page with this referendum.

Throughout his campaign, Mr. Erdogan claimed the reform package aimed to cut the country's links with the past when Turkey was run by the military. The present constitution was written by the army in 1982 after it seized power in a coup in 1980.

The 26 reforms include putting the military under the control of civilian courts. Women and trade union rights also were extended.

Several leaders and foreign ministers from the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, welcomed the result. A member of the European Parliament's Committee on Turkey, Richard Howitt, says the result sends a powerful message to Turkish critics of its EU bid.

"If there had been a "No" vote, Turkey's opponents in the European Union would be jumping on such a result, saying there was no clear support for reform in Turkey," said Howitt. "I think we should conclude the opposite, that there is clear political will from the Turkish people for reform and future European membership."

But the two main opposition parties claim that proposed reforms to the judiciary will put the courts under the control of the government, and that worries them, because they fear that the governing party's Islamic roots could lead to too much religious influence.

Istiklal street is one of the main shopping streets in central Istanbul. For the people here, deep divisions remain over the referendum.

One resident interviewed on the street said he believes Tayyip Erdogan is honest and sincere. He said he voted "Yes" in the referendum and will always support the prime minister, because with this new system all those who create coups will be eliminated.

But this same man said he is concerned. "Maybe Turkish republic will change to going to an Islamic system, not equal, so it is very bad situation for us."

Prime Minister Erdogan dismissed such concerns, saying he is committed to the country's 87-year-old secular state. Following the referendum victory, Mr. Erdogan has committed himself to further reform, including a completely new constitution.

Bahcesehir University political scientist Cengiz Aktar said that process should start now, and must be politically inclusive. "We should create conditions of a dialogue and a national consensus to go and find out what is the best social contract for this country to become a genuine democracy."

The referendum has given the government a powerful mandate for change. It also has shown support for the ruling AK Party before next year's general election. At same time, however, analysts say the country remains deeply divided.

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