Turkey votes on constitutional reform; count begins

ANKARA Sun Sep 12, 2010 9:04pm IST

Emine Erdogan casts her vote for a referendum on a constitutional reform bill in Istanbul September 12, 2010. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Emine Erdogan casts her vote for a referendum on a constitutional reform bill in Istanbul September 12, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Osman Orsal

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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turks voted on Sunday on whether to amend the constitution in a referendum seen as a tussle between a government led by conservative Muslims and its secular opponents for influence over the EU candidate country's future.

Polling stations closed at 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) and the election board has barred broadcast of any results until 9.00 p.m. (1800 GMT), although the ban was expected to be relaxed and preliminary official results could start filtering out earlier.

A late opinion poll showed a majority of Turks backing the government's package, which includes changes that critics say will give the ruling party control over the judiciary. Other polls have shown the result too close to call.

The vote will test support for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK Party has pushed political and economic reforms since coming to power in 2002, but is accused by the secular establishment of harbouring Islamist ambitions.

A mix-up prevented the leader of the main secular opposition party from casting his ballot.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, appointed chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP) in May, had been unaware of changes to regulations limiting where members of parliament could vote, the party said in a statement.

The day was also marred by clashes between security forces and Kurdish activists in some parts of the southeast, while an election official was killed by a bear in Erzurum district, a mountainous region of eastern Anatolia.

ELECTION POINTER

Turks, and investors, will eye the outcome 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.

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.

"Turkish democracy is at a turning point today, we are sitting an important test," Erdogan said after voting in Uskudar district of Istanbul, as police sharpshooters lay in position on rooftops around the school serving as a polling station.

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.

Security forces and Kurdish activists urging a boycott of the vote clashed in parts of the insurgency-ridden southeast, and a soldier was killed by a land mine near the town of Siirt.

How Kurds vote could prove important in a tight race. Erdogan said the boycott had little impact except in Hakkari district bordering Iran.

To whip up support, the government has revived memories of the brutal repression that followed the 1980 coup.

"A 'yes' has to come out of today's vote, not only for the democratic future of Turkey, but also to right the wrongs of the past and ease the pain of those who suffered in the 1980 coup," a soldier at the time of the coup, Sahit Yilmazer, said as he voted in Istanbul.

CONTROL OF COURTS

The secularist opposition does not dispute that some changes are necessary. But it 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 opponents say 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.

"Turkey is going through a crisis," Sarenur Beyan, a 43-year-old driving instructor, visibly angry after casting a vote at the same polling station as the prime minister.

"I voted 'no' because I can't support Tayyip Erdogan. He runs the government like his own fiefdom... How can you say 'yes' to that?"

Polarisation 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.

The EU's executive European Commission has backed Ankara's attempt to reorganise the judiciary, but accused the government on Tuesday of stifling public debate over the proposals.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove, Alexandra Hudson and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Matthew Jones)

(For more news visit Reuters India)

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