Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan scored a major political victory in Sunday’s closely watched constitutional referendum when voters approved a package of amendments in a landslide, handing his Islamic-rooted party a boost ahead the country’s 2011 elections.
“Our nation has said from now on, we go forward,” Mr. Erdogan told supporters Sunday night. “Yes to freedom. Yes to rule of law. No to the law of the rulers. The tutelage of the coup regime is over.”
The 58 percent “yes” vote defied predictions of a more narrow victory and gave Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, a critical boost ahead of next year’s elections. Turnout was estimated at more than 77 percent.
The White House said in a statement Sunday that President Obama had called Mr. Erdogan and “acknowledged the vibrancy of Turkey’s democracy as reflected in the turnout for the referendum that took place across Turkey today.”
Many of the 26 amendments to the country’s 1982 post-coup constitution garnered support from across the political spectrum, such as those promoting gender equality and union rights for public employees.
However, the proposed changes to the judiciary had sparked heated debate between the Islamic-rooted AKP and the nationalist and secular opposition parties that feared they would only consolidate the ruling party’s power.
The judicial reforms will increase the number of justices on the nation’s historically secular Constitutional Court from 11 to 17 while giving AKP-dominated institutions such as the parliament more power in appointing them.
“The judicial branch — the last secular fortress, as many call it — will be neutralized by the new appointees,” predicted Ilhan Tanir, a columnist for Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News. “Turkey now can be identified as Erdogan’s country, much like [President Hugo] Chavez’s Venezuela. His winning streak continues, and he’s once more proven that he has an instinct for picking the right fights and avoiding the others.”
Mr. Erdogan’s successful moves on the judiciary follow years of AKP’s steady effort to chip away at the influence of the country’s politically powerful military, which had served as a bulwark against encroaching religious influence since the establishment of modern Turkey, at times overthrowing governments — as recently as 1997 — when the military leaders thought it drifted too far from the secularist vision of the republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk.
The referendum results, while not having much bearing on the military, are widely seen as a rebuke to the country’s secular establishment.
“As far as the immediate impact of the referendum, it is clear that Turks want change,” said Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They want to do away with the authoritarian legacies that the military bequeathed to them in 1982.”
Mr. Cook noted that the Constitutional Court, which “did away with some of the [package’s] worst aspects,” had “clearly made it more palatable for more Turks to vote ‘yes.’”
Before the result was known, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, also of AKP, appealed for Turkish unity.
“From tomorrow onwards, Turkey needs to unite as one and look ahead,” he said after voting. “Turkey should focus all its energy on the issues its people are facing and the future of the country. The public has the final say in democracies. I would like to remind everyone to welcome the result with respect and maturity.”
The referendum was seen as a crucial test for the prime minister and his party ahead of next year’s elections, when they will seek another electoral mandate after landslides in 2002 and 2007.
Mr. Erdogan has said he would make it his last term as prime minister if he is re-elected, although there is speculation that he might seek the presidency in 2012.
“This did seem like a dress rehearsal for the 2011 elections and as such AKP looks strong,” said Mr. Cook. “While Erdogan remains the odds-on favorite, this referendum took place many months before the national elections and anything can happen. Turkish politics don’t generally crystallize until the weeks before the elections.”
Voters have rewarded Mr. Erdogan’s party for Turkey’s robust economic growth during the AKP’s eight years in power.
But the leading opposition party — the nationalist Republican People’s Party known as CHP — has experienced a resurgence in recent months since the selection of a new leader, Kemal Kilicoglu in May.
Because of a mix-up in voter registration, Mr. Kilicoglu was unable to cast his vote and initially made no public statements after the disappointing results. But last week, he castigated the European Union for endorsing Mr. Erdogan’s package, noting that it would effectively grant Mr. Erdogan and his AKP allies the power to appoint judges in addition to the president, the parliamentary speaker, police chiefs and governors.
“The honest people of this country do not allow this,” he said. “Those in favor of democracy do not allow this, but the deaf officials of the European Union say, ‘What a good thing it is you’re doing.’”
Under Mr. Erdogan, Turkey has made a fierce but thus-far unsuccessful bid to join the European Union. Despite the recent rhetorical support of new British Prime Minister David Cameron, however, Turkey’s candidacy is seen as more of a long shot than ever, particularly after its recent overtures to Iran and Syria as well as its abrupt turn away from longtime ally Israel after nine Turkish nationals were killed aboard a Gaza-bound aid flotilla in a clash with Israeli commandos.