Turkey referendum strengthens ruling party

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Turkey's ruling AK Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an won a landmark referendum on Sunday (12 September) introducing changes to the country's constitution. The victory of the 'yes' camp by 58% against 42%, a higher margin than anticipated, is expected to strengthen the AKP ahead of national elections due next year.

"Tonight the real losers have been those with military takeover mentalities. We have proof that change can be brought about democratically," Erdo?an said, quoted by Euronews.

Indeed, the AK Party had adopted a strategy of presenting the constitutional changes as a U-turn away from the previous constitution, put in place after the 1980 military coup by General Kenan Evren. In fact, the referendum coincided with the 30th anniversary of the 12 September 1980 coup and was presented by the authorities as an historic settlement with its instigators.

But the government also targeted the secularists, who had tried to ban the Islamic-rooted AKP in 2002 on the grounds that it had violated the political parties law.

The Republican People's Party (CHP), the main opposition party which campaigned for the 'no' camp, warned that the constitutional changes would allow the AKP to appoint the country's top judges and transform Turkey into an authoritarian regime dominated by a single party (EURACTIV 02/09/10).

"In the referendum, 42% of our citizens voted against this constitutional package, and 23% didn't vote at all," noted Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu, leader of the CHP. "This must not be under-estimated. With 42%, for sure our party has a very important role to play," K?l?çdaro?lu said, quoted by the Turkish press.

The turnover of around 78% appears to be high, but the authorities had envisaged a fine for those who do not vote. Also, there were around 700,000 invalid votes, a figure which appears surprisingly high. In theory, invalid votes are cast by undecided voters who went to the ballot box but refused to lend support to either the 'yes' or the 'no' fronts. Technical issues were also cited as a reason for invalid votes.

Street clashes marred voting at some polling stations in provinces with large Kurdish populations. Dozens of people were detained in connection with the incidents. Apart from these, the referendum was held in a peaceful atmosphere nationwide.

Commission welcomes vote outcome

EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle welcomed the referendum results as a "step in the right direction" in its efforts to join the bloc, but pressed Ankara for more change.

In previous statements, the European Commission had regretted the lack of dialogue and compromise in the preparatory phase of the reform package and the referendum campaign itself. 

According to the Commission, the positive elements of the constitutional amendments are the following:

  • Regarding military justice, the reform restricts the competence of military courts to crimes of military personnel related to military service and duties, and allows civilian courts to try military personnel on all other occasions;
  • It allows for trial of the army chief and his aides by the Supreme Court;
  • The composition of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors is widened and aims to represent the judiciary as a whole;
  • The reforms also allow for positive discrimination measures for women and children;
  • The package also extends the rights of civil servants to collective bargaining and agreements, but not the right to vote.
  • It provides a legal basis for establishing the institution of an ombudsman.

"We respect the will of the people. We have learned lessons from the referendum. But no-one can deny the extraordinary pressure put on the public," the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu said, quoted by Hürriyet.

K?l?çdaro?lu said they were satisfied with the percentage of 'no' votes but added, "of course we wish the outcome were 'no'".

Underscoring that he and his team had visited 70 towns and 201 districts, K?l?çdaro?lu said the party would continue their active political struggle until next year's general elections.

Mustafa Özyürek, a CHP MP from Istanbul, said the ballot box had spoken. "We will respect this," he said, speaking to journalists. "But this outcome has upset me as a person who thinks about the country's future and a CHP member. This outcome will mean the judiciary will be put under the orders of the government completely. I am upset, but our struggle will continue."

Nationalist Movement Party or MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli preferred to make a written statement about the results.

"The AKP mobilisation of state resources, resort to illegal tools – such as pressure, bribery, lies and threats – as well as the abuse of moral values to achieve political ends has become a dark page in our history," Bahçeli said.

Israeli daily Haaretz compared Erdo?an to Kemal Atatürk in terms of popularity. Atatürk was the founder of modern Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

"This is the fourth time Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an has savored victory in a national ballot. Twice he won general elections, twice in referenda. He is a perennial winner, even if we in Israel are largely united in our distaste for him," Haaretz wrote.

Haaretz appeared to refer to a recent push by Turkey to put an end to the blockade of Gaza and to strains in relations following the recent Gaza flotilla incident, in which nine Turkish citizens died (EURACTIV 31/05/10).

Erdo?an will remain hated by the Turkish secular elite, which is concentrated in the army, universities and business community. But he is beloved by Turkey's poorer, devout periphery. The prime minister has straightened the backbone of the marginalised, and in return has received their undying loyalty, Haaretz writes.

UK MEP Richard Howitt (Labour) hailed the result of the vote as a further step on its path to reform and a challenge to EU members to show the same resolve in confronting opposition to Turkey's candidacy in their own countries.

"Turkey's detractors who would have seized on a 'no' vote should now accept that the high turnout to approve the constitutional reforms marks the deep will of Turkish people," he said.

Speaking in favour of designing a new constitution with consensus from all parties, Howitt described the result as "a signal from the country's population to all parties that they want them to work together to draw up an entirely new constitution".

The Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen’s Association (TÜS?AD) stated in a press release that Turkey's goal should be "a 21st Century Constitution," drafted "as the expression of our will to live together freely on the basis of a true social contract".
 
"Our country has completed the referendum on the bill introducing several changes to the Constitution following a propaganda period during which intense political debates took place," TÜS?AD said.

With regard to what lessons could be drawn from the process, the organisation believes that Turkey needs "mutual understanding, empathy, dialogue and constructivism in order to resolve the issues that divide society on the way to the new constitution".

Three "bonding links" were identified as being needed to be consolidated by the new constitution.

"First of the dividing lines is the freedom of religion and conscience: will the state be truly equidistant to all religions and sects?"

"The second dividing line is the issue of identities: will all of us be 'equal citizens' beyond a Turk, Kurd or the definition of any other ethnic origin?"

"The third dividing line is the division of powers of the legislative, executive and judiciary branches and their ability to work effectively free from tutelage. Will we agree on how the right control/balance mechanisms between the legislative, executive and judiciary branches will be formed," it asks, stressing that dialogue between academia and opinion leaders will be necessary after the "unsustainable" political dialogue in the run-up to the vote.

The ruling AK Party of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an avoided early elections on 7 July, when judges approved its proposed constitutional reforms. However, the changes still needed to be approved in a referendum, scheduled since then for 12 September.

The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), campaigned against them, saying it undermined the country's secularism (EURACTIV 08/07/10).

As the Turkish press recalls, Erdo?an has primarily based his referendum rhetoric on the settling of accounts with the perpetrators of the 1980 military coup, encouraging Turks to vote 'yes' so that the coup plotters can be tried.

CHP leader Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu said the amendments would result in the politicisation of the judiciary and a separation in society. The CHP also sees the proposed reform as a way of allowing the AKP to keep its officials safe from prosecution for corruption, as well as strengthening the positions of the ruling party ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

  • 22 July 2011: General elections in Turkey.

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