In Turkey, Constitutional Changes Do Little to Mend Divisions

BY Larisa Epatko  September 13, 2010 at 6:56 PM EDT


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his vote in the referendum. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a classic dilemma in Turkish politics: voters approved a referendum that the Islamist-rooted government said would make the country’s government more modern and democratic, but that opponents said would give the ruling party autocratic powers. And Turkish columnists have widely different takes on what the results mean.

According to unofficial results, 58 percent of voters approved the government-backed amendments in Sunday’s vote. But the 42 percent voting “no” shows the country is still divided, and some accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development party, or AK Party, as trying to establish a “one-man rule,” reports CNN:

“Nobody can stand in the way of Erdogan now,” columnist Mehmet Yilmaz wrote Monday in the Hurriyet newspaper. “What Turkey will see now is a series of steps that will turn him into [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin.”

But Ihsan Dagi, a columnist of the Today’s Zaman newspaper, offered another view, according to the Christian Science Monitor:

“The referendum result is not an open check to the AK Party. It is an approval of a project of civilianization and democratization. AK Party cannot do whatever it wants, based on these results — no way.”

In April, Erdogan [offered the proposed amendments](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2010/04/turkey-constitution.html) that would among other changes, change the way judges are appointed, allow military officers to be tried in civilian rather than military courts, and make it more difficult for courts to ban political parties.

Other changes promote gender equality and other citizens’ rights and lift immunity from prosecution of the coup leaders. Reuters has a list of the amendments.

Turkey has been involved in lengthy negotiations to join the European Union, and officials in Brussels welcomed the changes.

“These reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of long-standing priorities in Turkey’s efforts towards fully complying with the accession criteria,” said EU Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fuele in a statement.

President Obama called Erdogan on Sunday, and “acknowledged the vibrancy of Turkey’s democracy as reflected in the turnout for the referendum,” according to the White House press office.

About 77 percent of Turkey’s voting population of nearly 50 million turned out for the referendum. Its success was generally viewed as a positive sign for Erdogan’s AK Party going into parliamentary elections, due by July 2011.