With Turkey passing through another critical period in its modern history, the incumbent government in Ankara has come to be viewed as the herald of greater democracy in the country, free from military interference. On September 12, 30 years after the military coup of Gen Kenan Evren, a referendum in Turkey approved a 26-point constitutional amendment package presented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, with 58 per cent of participants voting in its favour.
The constitution had been altered many times, but the military's influence could never be eliminated. This is the largest set of amendments since the present constitution was adopted in 1982. The amendment package represents a long-overdue revamping of a military-imposed constitution and is intended to bring the constitutional framework in line with European standards of law and democracy.
The constitutional reforms designed to strengthen democracy include a number of articles boosting democracy, like those strengthening individual rights and civil liberties, supporting more reforms giving greater rights to Turkey's ethnic minorities, curtailing the role of the military in politics and bringing the standards of Turkish democracy closer to those of the member countries of the European Union, in which Turkey is seeking full membership. The deletion of Article 15 of the constitution strips the military of its existing immunity against prosecution in civilian courts. It opens the way for the trial of army generals who were directly responsible for the staging of the 1980 military coup.
Likewise, some of the amendments made relate to the expansion in the structure of the Constitutional Court and the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors. The membership of the Constitutional Court has been increased to 17, and the Turkish Grand Assembly will be able to elect three members to the court from amongst candidates proposed by independent bar associations. These changes will allow the government to reorient the judicial structure to bring it in accord with democratic standards. In the past, the obstructionist role of the Turkish judiciary has always prevented the country's transition to full democracy. At the same time, the recent amendments propose the establishment of ombuds-persons, ensuring affirmative action in favour of children, women and the handicapped, and also collective bargaining for workers.
Prime Minister Erdogan has dubbed the referendum "a key to open the door to a new constitution," which he is determined to push through in the months to come. The most important element in the change produced by the referendum is that the Turkish people have expressed a collective desire for the transformation of the country's political-legal system, and thereby furnished ultimate proof of their support for complete democratisation. Therefore, this referendum was in no small measure an expression of wide popular support for the government of Prime Minister Erdogan.
These changes are expected to raise the standards of democracy, political transparency and civil liberties in Turkey. EU officials and European political leaders have hailed the changes as a step which will bring Turkey closer to its goal of EU membership. The referendum will transform the dynamics of Turkish politics. The Turkish people will go to the ballot box in less than a year, with the next elections scheduled for July 2011.
Since coming to power, the AK Party had been charged with undermining the foundations of secularism in the country. Some Turkish analysts believe that the vote will strengthen Mr Erdogan's increasingly assertive foreign policy. The Turkish leadership now has the opportunity to present itself as a major player in regional politics.
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