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Turkey Referendum Triumph Paves Way For Third AKP Term, New Constitution

Supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party cheer in front of party headquarters in Istanbul on September 12.
Supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party cheer in front of party headquarters in Istanbul on September 12.
ISTANBUL -- For Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it seems, once is not enough. No sooner had Turkey's combative prime minister scored an emphatic victory in his drive to amend his country's constitution than he was setting his eyes on a bigger prize.

Addressing thousands of supporters in Istanbul on late on September 12, Erdogan vowed to use that day's referendum triumph as a platform to secure a third term in which his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) would set about writing an entirely new constitution.

The pledge, which had also been made during the bitterly divisive referendum campaign, came before Erdogan's political opponents even had time to absorb the blow delivered by the emphatic victory margin -- 58 percent to 42 percent -- for the government's constitutional reform program.

Now the debate is expected to move on to next year's general elections -- with constitutional change expected to remain center stage.

The changes wrought by the September 12 vote should be a beginning rather than an end, says Cengiz Aktar, professor of European Union studies at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.

Has Erdogan won victory over the generals who led the 1980 coup?
"That is what many people expect. That is what the prime minister said in his victory speech. He clearly mentioned the new constitution," Aktar says.

"The work for the new constitution will be starting immediately, he said, and I think he should be taken to his words and if those in Turkey who voted against this referendum package are consistent within themselves they should take him to his word and start the works today."

Taking Down The Generals

As things stand, the reforms already approved will significantly weaken the judiciary and armed forces -- long regarded as the twin pillars of Turkey's secular system -- and raise the prospect of a dramatically transformed political landscape.

They mean parliament and the president -- both currently in the hands of the Islamic-rooted AKP -- will have greater say over appointments to Turkey's highest court, the Constitutional Court, and the Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges, which controls most senior judicial appointments.

Meanwhile, the army, once the unofficial arbiters of Turkish politics -- having toppled four governments since 1960 -- will lose its former protected status with changes that will make serving officers subject to trial in civilian courts.

That blow to military prestige comes to a military already reeling from the mass arrests of dozens of officers accused of plotting to overthrow Erdogan's government in at least two separate coup plots.

"The regime of tutelage is now part of history. The aims of those who support coups will not be achieved," Erdogan said in his televised address, clearly savoring the army's diminished status on the 30th anniversary of a bloody coup in 1980. "Those who expect to benefit from...dark places will be disappointed."

Consensus Elusive

The victory, he said -- in a spirit of magnanimity often missing during a strident campaign -- was not his, but Turkey's. "Those who said 'yes' and those who said 'no' are equally winners because advanced democracy is for everybody," Erdogan declared.

But according to Aktar, the changes -- while moving in the right direction -- fall far short of what is needed. "This country needs to get rid of this straitjacket that was imposed on it in 1982 by the military," he says. "Despite the old past amendments, this constitution was amended 16 times and this was the 17th, it is still not enough.

"We should create the conditions of a dialogue and a national consensus to go and find out what is the best social contract for this country to become a genuine democracy."

That consensus might be elusive. Erdogan's government urged a "yes" vote for the 26-article amendment package on the grounds that the current constitution was the undemocratic product of the 1980 military coup government.

Yet every opposition party -- while accepting the need for a new constitutional settlement -- campaigned against it. Some, like the secularist main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), argued that the reforms were designed to increase Erdogan's power while enhancing the AKP's alleged goal of an Islamic state by neutering the courts.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party urged a boycott on the basis that the package failed to address the needs of Turkey's estimated 14 million Kurds.

Analysts like Aktar believe the next step should be to prepare a constitution that decentralizes the historically powerful Turkish state while recognizing the identity of groups like the Kurds.

What Has Been Changed?

Yet such nuances are lost on many Turkish voters. A small post-referendum survey taken by RFE/RL on one of Istanbul's busiest thoroughfares, Istiklal Street, showed a mixture of fear and ignorance.

Some who voted "no" expressed foreboding about what the outcome will herald for the future.

Eyup Ayhan Balin, 30, an environmental engineer and CHP supporter, voiced fears for the future of Turkey's secular state.

"The AKP has changed the main roots of Turkey. They want to change the Kemalist [secular] system. So maybe all the judge system and law system will be changed," Balin said. "The quality and balance will be changed and maybe the Turkish republic will change toward going to an Islamic system."

Others who voted "yes" seemed confused about what they had supported. One man said he believed it would enable the government to complete Istanbul's underground rail network.

Another, Fatih Sebap, said it would help students like himself as well as victims of Turkey's long legacy of political violence. But he also said he had backed the passage because of Erdogan's stern line against military coups.

Referring to Ergenekon, an alleged army coup plot against the AKP, he said that there was "no mafia left in the country anymore. In my opinion, all the criminals will get their just punishments, all the families of the martyrs will get what they deserve, and as students, we will get all the support that we demand."

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