Turkey votes in referendum to amend Constitution

Referendum is seen as test of support for a govt that pushes liberal reforms.

Istanbul: Turks voted on Sunday on whether to amend a military-era Constitution in what the government says is a key step toward EU-style democracy, despite opposition claims that the proposed reforms would shackle the independence of the courts.

The referendum on 26 amendments to a Constitution that was crafted after a 1980 military coup has become a battleground between the Islamic-oriented government and traditional power elites that believe Turkey`s secular principles are under threat. The outcome will set the stage for elections next year in a strategically located NATO ally whose regional clout has surged in recent years.

Voting stations close at 4 pm (1300 GMT, 9 am EDT) in eastern Turkey, and 5 pm (1400 GMT, 10 am EDT) elsewhere in the country, with results expected in the evening. About 50 million Turks, or two-thirds of the population, were eligible to vote.

The day of the referendum evoked Turkey`s traumatic past. It was the 30th anniversary of a coup that curbed years of political and street chaos but led to widespread arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, and Kurdish militants launched a rebellion a few years later that continues today. The military`s long shadow over Turkish politics has begun to wane only in the last few years.

The civilian government says the amendments fall in line with EU requirements for membership, partly by making the military more accountable to civilian courts and allowing civil servants to go on strike. The opposition, however, believes a provision that would give parliament more say in appointing judges masks an attempt to control the courts, which have sparred with Erdogan`s camp.

The military and the court system, including the Constitutional Court, have sought to uphold the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded Turkey in 1923, and the ruling Justice and Development Party has been accused of plotting to undo those principles.

The ruling party, whose reforms have won backing from the European Union, says the hardline emphasis on secularism must be updated to incorporate democratic change, including religious freedoms. It lost a battle in 2008 when the Constitutional Court struck down a government-backed amendment lifting a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in universities.

If approved, the constitutional amendments would also remove immunity from prosecution for the engineers of the 1980 coup. Kenan Evren, the military chief who seized power and became president, is 93 and ailing.

Many Kurdish politicians pledged to boycott the referendum, saying the amendments do not specifically address discrimination toward the minority, which comprises up to 20 percent of the population. In recent days, police have battled Kurdish protesters in the east of the country, and a suspension of attacks announced by Kurdish rebels one month ago is set to end on September 20.

Bureau Report