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Turks backs constitutional changes

Turks approved sweeping changes to their military-era constitution. Referendum hailed by the government as a leap toward full democracy in line with its troubled bid to join the European Union.

(AP)

Turks approved sweeping changes to their military-era constitution Sunday, a referendum hailed by the government as a leap toward full democracy in line with its troubled bid to join the European Union.

With 99 percent of the vote counted, 58 percent had cast ballots in favor of the constitutional amendments, state-run TRT television said. About 42 percent voted "no" heeding opposition claims that the reforms would shackle the independence of the courts.

The referendum on 26 amendments to a constitution crafted after a 1980 military coup had become a battleground between the ıslamic-oriented government and traditional power elites, including many in the armed forces, who fear Turkey's secular principles are under threat. Voter turnout was 78 percent, and the result amounted to a vote of confidence in the ruling Justice and Development Party ahead of elections next year.

"We have crossed a historic threshold toward advanced democracy and the supremacy of law" Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at his party headquarters in ıstanbul. "The regime of tutelage in Turkey will now come to an end," he said. "The mentality will be so that those enthusiastic for military coups will see their enthusiasms stuck inside them."

President Abdullah Gul appealed for harmony in a country that, if divided on other levels, was fiercely united on one front this weekend. "The public has the final say in democracies" Gul said after voting. "I would like to remind everyone to welcome the result with respect and maturity."

In a statement, the White House said President Obama called Erdogan just as the basketball final began to congratulate him for Turkey's role as tournament host, and «also acknowledged the vibrancy of Turkey's democracy as reflected in the turnout for the referendum that took place across Turkey today."

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. ıt 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 would also 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.

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