Friday, September 10, 2010

Turkey's too important to dismiss its referendum as a rowdy squabble

by Simon Tisdall

September 9, 2010

Proposed reforms to Turkey's constitution, the subject of a national referendum on Sunday, appear largely unexceptional to western eyes. But after months of impassioned, increasingly polarised campaigning, the vote has effectively transformed into a plebiscite on the eight-year rule of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his neo-Islamist AK party. The outcome has potentially dramatic implications for Turkey's future regional and international role.

A string of amendments intended to strengthen individuals, trade union and privacy rights are mostly uncontroversial. So, too, is a proposal to try military personnel accused of crimes against the state in civilian courts – although the army doubtless views it as another assault on its autonomy. It is Erdoğan's plan to change the way judges and prosecutors are appointed that has got the opposition up in arms.

They say the proposal is part of the AKP's "creeping coup" against the secular state bequeathed by Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk. By attempting to increase executive control over the judiciary, as he as already done over the military, Erdoğan is accused of dangerous "Putinist" authoritarianism, of pursuing a covert Islamist agenda, and of seeking to create an all-powerful presidency that he himself will one day occupy.