With a double victory in Sunday's constitutional referendum, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is poised to make sweeping changes in his officially secular, but predominantly Muslim country.
The package of changes was supported by 58 per cent of the 39 million people who voted, paving the way for the government to appoint a large number of high-court judges more in tune with the government's Islamic tendencies. It also gives Mr. Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a leg up on next year's national elections.
"I hadn't expected him to win by such a large margin," said Oktay Eksi, a leading columnist for the popular Hurriyet newspaper. "Based on this result, it makes the next election look easy for him," he said.
The AKP ran an impressive campaign. Most aspects of the government's lengthy set of changes were immensely popular: They reduce the power of military courts over civilians, grant greater protections of human rights, and remove the immunity from prosecution that Turkey's military coup leaders gave themselves when drafting the constitution in the early 1980s.
The largely secular opposition objected to only two of the 26 points in the package. These two articles will increase the number of judges on the Constitutional Court (the country's highest court) and give Parliament the largest say in appointing those and other judges.
Taken together, the government can, in short order, usher in a panel of judges that are likely to approve legislation extending religious practices and policies in the country.
In the past, the Constitutional Court struck down legislation that would have given women the right to wear head scarves in public institutions such as universities, and came close in 2008 to ruling the AKP itself as unconstitutional for being religious in nature. (The party is careful to describe itself as supportive of Islam, but not Islamic in nature, which would be a violation of the founding constitution laid down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 as he successfully removed all aspects of religion from public life.) Indeed, the AKP has overseen a growth in Turkey's economy, brought about economic reforms and championed the country's case for joining the European Union. Nevertheless, Turkey's secular establishment accuses it of having Islamist goals.
Mr. Eksi, the political columnist, says that Mr. Erdogan could well become what he calls an "elected Sultan." He describes what he believes are the Prime Minister's plans to write a whole new constitution - one that establishes a presidential system of government - and to run for president himself in 2012.
A new constitution can be passed by a two-thirds majority of Parliament, Mr. Eksi notes, "something the Prime Minister may well be able to muster" after elections that must be held before July, next year.
In Sunday's vote, Mr. Erdogan correctly calculated that Turks would embrace the overall reforms and not give as much credence to the opposition's efforts to paint the reforms as a kind of backdoor Islamic coup. He was able to sell the package of reforms as something necessary if Turkey hopes to join the European Union. Indeed, there was nothing even in the judicial reforms that can't be found in almost all Western constitutions.
EU officials have expressed approval of much of the reforms package, reportedly saying it is "a step in the right direction." But while Europe's reservations about Turkey's proposed membership in the EU have largely been concerned with matters of human rights, there are many who say privately they also are worried about an overly Islamized Turkey joining their club. They will be waiting to see just what Mr. Erdogan does with his victory.
"We have crossed a historic threshold toward advanced democracy and the supremacy of law," Mr. Erdogan said in a nationally televised speech at his party headquarters in Istanbul Sunday night.
"Those who said 'yes' and those who said 'no' are equally winners because advanced democracy is for everybody," he said.Report Typo/Error