Turkey backs constitutional changes

Turkish voters have given strong backing to a package of constitutional changes.

With nearly all votes in the referendum counted, about 58% had voted "Yes" to amending the constitution.

The opposition argues that the governing party, which has its roots in political Islam, is seeking dangerous levels of control over the judiciary.

The government says it wants to bring the constitution more in line with European Union standards.

"We have passed a historic threshold on the way to advanced democracy and the supremacy of law," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said to the applause of party activists.

Analysts say the strong "Yes" vote will boost Mr Erdogan's government.

His Justice and Development Party (AKP) will be seeking a third consecutive term in office in a general election due to take place before July 2011.

The AKP has clashed repeatedly with Turkey's highest courts, which see themselves as guardians of the country's secular values.

The opposition say two of the 26 planned amendments would give the government excessive influence over the judiciary.

They accuse the AKP of trying to seize control of the judiciary as part of a back-door Islamist coup.

In Istanbul - the most Westernised city in Turkey, where many are suspicious of the AKP's religious agenda - Ozgur Deniz voted "No".

"The bad thing about this referendum was that we had to either choose or reject the whole package," he told the BBC.

"This is a package where some things are good for democracy - such as less power for the military. But there are some items which might be used by the government to use democracy for non-democratic purposes, like the item regarding the judiciary," he said.

"This election shows the commitment of Turkish people to a more democratic Turkey, and the army has not got the same power as before," wrote Ahmet from Eskisehir in an e-mail to the BBC.

The Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, appealed for national unity. "From tomorrow onwards, Turkey needs to unite as one, and look ahead.

"The public has the final say in democracies. I would like to remind everyone to welcome the result with respect and maturity."

The present constitution was drawn up by a military junta which seized power in a coup exactly 30 years ago, on 12 September 1980.

In all, the reform package includes 26 amendments to the 1982 constitution, many of them backed by the EU.

Civilian courts will have the power to try military personnel for crimes against the state, while sacked military officers will have the right to appeal against their dismissal.

Gender equality will be strengthened, and discrimination against children, the old and disabled banned.

Workers will be allowed to join more than one union and the ban on politically motivated strikes will be removed.

In parliament, elected lawmakers will be able to stay on if their party is disbanded by the court.

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