- Associated Press - Sunday, September 12, 2010

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that voters have approved changes to a military-era constitution in a referendum widely seen as a vote of confidence for his government.

Mr. Erdogan said the constitutional amendments, which the government says are a key step in Turkey’s path to full democracy, passed with 58 percent of the vote in favor.

With 92 percent of the vote counted in a referendum, 58.5 percent cast ballots in favor of the constitutional amendments, the state-run TRT television reported. About 41.5 percent voted “no,” heeding opposition claims that the reforms would shackle the independence of the courts.

Turkey’s election commission has yet to declare the outcome, despite the overwhelming lead for amendment supporters.

The referendum on 26 amendments to a constitution that was crafted after a 1980 military coup became a battleground between the Islamic-oriented government and traditional power elites that believe Turkey’s secular principles are under threat.

The vote sets the stage for elections next year for a strategic NATO ally whose regional clout has surged in recent years.

Street clashes marred voting at several polling stations in provinces with large Kurdish populations. A Kurdish party urged supporters to boycott the ballot, arguing that the proposed changes would not advance the rights of the ethnic minority.

Since Saturday, police nationwide have detained 138 people suspected of threatening people into boycotting the vote or casting their ballot in a certain way, Interior Minister Besir Atalay said.

In Ankara, the Turkish capital, President Abdullah Gul appealed for harmony in a country that, if divided on other levels, was fiercely united on one front this weekend. In an Istanbul arena Sunday night, Turkey faces the United States in the final of the world basketball championships.

“From tomorrow onwards, Turkey needs to unite as one and look ahead. Turkey should focus all its energy on the issues its people are facing and the future of the country,” Mr. Gul said after voting. “The public has the final say in democracies. I would like to remind everyone to welcome the result with respect and maturity.”

Voting stations closed at 4 p.m. (9 a.m. EDT) in eastern Turkey and at 5 p.m. (10 a.m. EDT) elsewhere in the country. About 50 million Turks, or two-thirds of the population, were eligible to vote.

Mr. Erdogan voted in Istanbul with his wife and daughter, posing for the media with the envelope in his hands and saying the referendum was an important step for Turkish democracy.

The date evoked Turkey’s traumatic past. Sunday 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 European Union 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 Mr. 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 EU, says the hardline emphasis on secularism and nationalism 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.

The constitutional amendments also would 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 said they would not vote because the amendments did not specifically address discrimination toward that minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the population. Kurdish rebels announced a suspension of attacks a month ago, but that unilateral cease-fire is due to expire Sept. 20.

Fighting, however, has persisted. Last week, Turkish media said the military killed nine rebels. On Sunday, a bomb believed to have been planted by guerrillas killed two pro-government guards in Sirnak province, bordering Iraq, Anatolia news agency reported. A land mine also killed a soldier in neighboring Siirt province.

In unrest related to the referendum, masked protesters calling for a boycott hurled gasoline bombs at police and threw stones at a school used as a polling station in an Istanbul neighborhood, Dogan news agency reported. Police responded with pepper gas and chased protesters down side streets.

Similar protests were reported in the Mediterranean city of Mersin and the nearby town of Akdeniz. In the southeastern province of Batman, six police officers were injured and four people were detained in a protest linked to the vote.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser and Ceren Kumova in Ankara contributed to this report.

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