ISTANBUL, Turkey — In the narrow streets of Fatih, one of Istanbul’s most conservative neighborhoods, men and women shuffle out of a polling station, their faces hidden behind dark umbrellas. Red and white government-sponsored “yes” posters flap wildly in the wind.
Yes, it appears, is the final answer. With nearly all ballot boxes counted after Sunday’s high-stakes referendum on constitutional reform, the yay-sayers have taken 58 percent of the vote.
It’s a major victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party, known here as AKP, which appears to have successfully consolidated the support it will need in next year’s general election and strengthened the country’s chances at joining the European Union.
“The main message out of the ballot boxes is that our nation said yes to advanced democracy, yes to freedoms, yes to the superiority of law — not the law of the superiors — and yes to the sovereignty of national will,” Erdogan said in a live television broadcast following Sunday’s vote.
But while many of the 26 proposed constitutional changes were easy for most Turks to accept — such as the expansion of rights for women, children and the disabled and the protection of privacy and personal information — other changes have roiled the country’s secular camp, which characterized the referendum as a battle against the AKP for the country’s identity.
“Like many other AKP initiatives, it's a strange confection, layers of sweet-tasting and sensible-sounding enticements wrapped around a core of harder to swallow and clumsily disguised political self-interest,” said Yigal Schliefer, journalist and author of the popular political blog Istanbul Calling.
Concerning secularists are reforms included in the package that will restructure the judiciary to give the president and parliament, which is controlled by AKP, more say in appointing senior judges. The changes will also curb the power of the military, which has ousted four governments in the past 50 years, often in the name of maintaining a non-religious identity.
Supporters of the referendum argued that the reforms were needed to improve Turkey’s notoriously flawed democracy and were another step toward EU acceptance.
“The current document is designed to protect the state, rather than individual citizens — a mindset that still permeates much of Turkish law,” wrote Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European parliament, in a recent Hurriyet Daily News column.
For Erdogan, who has called the vote the “most important” event in recent Turkish history, victory was essential.
Despite AKP’s many achievements since taking power eight years ago — the party led Turkey out of the financial doldrums in 2001, molding it into the world’s 15th largest economy, and enhanced the country’s regional clout — deep suspicions remain that the AKP wants to steer Turkey away from it secular roots and to blur the separation of church (or in this case, mosque) and state. Prosecutors have twice tried to disband the party, first in 2002, and more recently in 2008, for its religious leanings.
“At the moment there is a flood of disinformation and black propaganda that claims these reforms are my personal project, or a project of my party,” Erdogan said in an interview with the BBC. “These claims are unfounded.”
That the vote was set 30 years to the day after Turkish generals seized power in 1980 was no coincidence. The memory of that period — marked by armed conflict between Turkey’s ideological left and right, a coup that led to the suspension of the constitution, the detainment of more than half a million people, executions and rampant torture — remains on the minds of many Turks.
The timing is a reminder of the destructive role the military has occasionally played in Turkish history. And the constitutional reforms are an attempt to partially limit that power in the future.
The 1980 military intervention, like others before it, was done in the name of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the secular legacy that he left behind. But in this political showdown, many are hoping that democracy and secularism can both win out.
“I’m voting ‘yes’ because things need to change,” said Ayse Arslan, 34, an elementary school teacher in Istanbul. “We have nurtured our secularism, now we need to learn how to be a democracy.”