Prime Minister Erdogan claims victory in divisive referendum in Turkey

By Dorian Jones, Sarah Harman

Turkish voters went to the polls on Sunday to decide on a reform package that has split the population. Early results indicate that 60 percent of the electorate has voted "Yes," a decisive victory for the government.

About 58 percent of Turkish voters approved constitutional changes to reshape the judiciary and curb military powers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday.

Erdogan, who campaigned across the country for the reforms, hailed the provisional poll results.

"We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of law," he said at a press conference in Istanbul.

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Erdogan is eager to bring Turkey more in line with European norms and distance it from its current constitution, which was established in 1982 after a coup d'etat.

Supporters say the amendments will improve the state of Turkey's democracy and the fundamental rights of individuals, steps the European Union has long called on Turkey to take. The EU has shown support for the reforms.

"In normal times people say that they are against the coup and the constitution of the coup, so they now have chance to change it," Erdogan said, asking, "How can any one against the coup oppose these reforms?"
Opposition fears for Turkey's secularism

Yet the country's two main opposition parties - from both the right and left of the political spectrum - campaigned against the proposed judicial reforms in the package of 26 new or revised amendments.

Opposition leaders claimed that Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), marked by its Islamic roots, would use the reforms to seize control of the judiciary, thus undermining Turkey's secular state.

The proposed judicial reforms included a bid to increase the number of Constitutional Court judges from 11 to 17, giving parliament great power to select the new appointees. The reforms would also lead to changes in the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the center-left Republican People's Party, said the proposed measures would put critics of the government in danger.

"My call is to all the business people, all the artists and intellectuals," he said. "If 'yes' comes out of the referendum, one morning your home can be raided, you can be taken into custody, and spend months in prison."
A society divided
Opponents have said the government already enjoys a massive majority in parliament, adding that passing the reforms would mean lifting one of the last checks on government power. They have also criticized the move to have voters decide on the entire package of reforms rather than on individual amendments.

Erdogan declared at the outset of the referendum process his hope that the reform package could unite the country by severing ties with its legacy of military rule. But instead, the referendum appears to have further deepened the division within Turkish society.

"On secularism and conservatism, it is divided between half and half," said political columnist Nuray Mert. "On the definition of secularism and definition of democracy, people have strongly different opinions from each other and the gap between the two camps is widening each day."