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International
Last Updated: June 16, 2007
Referendum on Reforms in Turkey?
By Our Staff Writer

The clash over the election of President in Turkey either by Parliament or directly by the people continues. So far as the future of Turkey is concerned, much depends upon this important question. In this connection, Turkey's Secularist President has called a referendum on June 15 on plans backed by the Islamist-rooted government to have his successors as head of State elected directly by the people rather than by Parliament. The move highlights a dangerous power struggle between Turkey's Secular elite, which includes top judges, the army and Opposition parties as well as President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK Party. Last month, the Secularists derailed Erdogan's bid to have Parliament elect Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as President. The crisis has forced Sezer to stay on as interim head of state after his own mandate expired on May 16 and prompted Erdogan to bring forward a general election to July 22 from November.

In a statement posted on the Presidential website, his office said Sezer had also asked the Constitutional Court to rule on certain objections he has regarding the government's reforms, but did not say what they were. That raises the possibility that the referendum -- in which opinion polls suggest voters would strongly back the government's plans for a directly elected head of state -- may not actually take place.

Secularists fear the AK Party, Turkey's most popular party, would be more likely to get its candidate elected president in a popular vote, and that it would use the presidency to undermine Turkey's strict separation of State and religion. Erdogan and Gul deny any Islamist agenda. Erdogan says Turkish democracy will benefit if the president is elected directly rather than by lawmakers. By appealing to the people, he hopes to short-circuit opposition to his rule from the secularist establishment. His critics say the move will upset delicate political checks and balances in secular but predominantly Muslim Turkey.

In Turkey, the President can veto laws once and appoints many key officials. He is also head of the powerful armed forces. As heir to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revered founder of the Turkish Republic, the presidency carries great symbolic weight. Financial markets were largely unmoved by Sezer's action.

Sezer vetoed the reform plans in May but he does not have the right to veto laws a second time. That left him with just two options---to sign them straight into law or call a referendum on the reforms. The constitutional reforms also include reducing the president's term to five years but would let him seek a second term. Now, the president serves a single seven-year term. The reforms would cut parliament's term to four from five years.

Under current constitutional arrangements, the referendum cannot be held before October, but the government is trying to shorten the period to allow it to take place on July 22, when Turks are due to elect a new Parliament---a poll Erdogan's pro-business party is likely to win. Sezer is widely expected next week to veto the bill shortening the referendum timeframe, but Parliament could again override his veto by passing the law unchanged a second time.

Adding to the complicated picture, Parliament is now in recess. Erdogan has annoyed some in his party by deciding not to re-nominate them as candidates in the July poll, making it difficult to rally enough votes to push the law through again. The Constitutional Court is expected to rule next week on an appeal from the main opposition Republican People's Party that would annul the government's constitutional reforms because of a technical voting irregularity.

 


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