World Bulletin / News Desk
Turkish electors began to cast votes in the referendum on a package of government-sponsored constitutional amendments on Sunday, on September 12, the 30th anniversary of a military coup in Turkey.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in eastern Turkey and at 8 a.m. in the rest of the country; polls close at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) in the east and at 5 p.m. in the rest of the country.
A late opinion poll showed a clear majority of Turks backing the package, which includes changes to the judiciary. Other polls have shown the result too close to call.
Nearly 49.5 million citizens will cast vote in the referendum. Voting has already begun at border gates on August 3.
Constitutional amendments include change in structure of Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, as well as the Constitutional Court, country's top judiciary body.
Turkey's Constitutional Court has annulled parts of the package in July, rejecting to overturn the entire package in a move to upset country's main opposition party, CHP, which had appealed to the top court to scrape-off the package as a whole.
Opposition parties CHP and MHP accuse the government of attempting to politicize the judiciary and subordinate the judiciary to the executive branch. BDP announced that it would boycott the referendum.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said the changes to a charter drafted in the 1980s after a military coup exactly 30 years ago are needed to strengthen democracy.
Since winning power in 2002, AK has overseen a period of record economic growth and relative stability in a country with a history of financial mismanagement and political upheaval.
The package abolishes the provisional article 15 of the constitution which does not allow trial of the members of the National Security Council formed after the military coup in 1980, the ban on right to general strike; and paves the way for a citizen to become a member of more than one labor union, and civil servants and other public officials the right to collective bargaining.
It also paves the way for trial of parliament speaker, chief of general staff, and senior commanders by the High Tribunal on charges of crimes they commit regarding their positions.
"Boycott has little impact"
"Turkish democracy is at a turning point today, we are sitting an important test," Erdogan said after voting in Uskudar district of Istanbul, as police sharpshooters lay in position on rooftops around the school serving as a polling station.
Security forces and Kurdish activists urging a boycott of the vote clashed in parts of the southeast, and a soldier was killed by a land mine near the town of Siirt.
How Kurds vote could prove important in a tight race. Erdogan said the boycott had little impact except in Hakkari district bordering Iran.
To whip up support, the government has revived memories of the brutal repression that followed the 1980 coup.
"A 'yes' has to come out of today's vote, not only for the democratic future of Turkey, but also to right the wrongs of the past and ease the pain of those who suffered in the 1980 coup," a soldier at the time of the coup, Sahit Yilmazer, said as he voted in Istanbul.
"Turkey is going through a crisis," Sarenur Beyan, a 43-year-old driving instructor, visibly angry after casting a vote at the same polling station as the prime minister.
"I voted 'no' because I can't support Tayyip Erdogan. He runs the government like his own fiefdom... How can you say 'yes' to that?"
A survey by KONDA institute said the reforms would pass with a "yes" vote of 56.8 percent in Sunday's plebiscite, seen as a key gauge of Erdogan's support before a parliamentary election next year.
However, KONDA said 17.6 percent of the electorate were still undecided. Earlier polls this week showed the vote was too close to call, with one predicting a narrow defeat for the reform package and the other suggesting it would pass by the slimmest of margins.
Defeat in the referendum would damage the ruling party's morale ahead of the parliamentary election, due by July 2011.
Tarhan Erdem, head of KONDA, said the AK party however did not face a real challenge heading into next year's election, and voting in the referendum would follow party loyalties.
"The lack of a strong party other than AKP is a major shortcoming of Turkish politics.... falling opposition to the reforms is due to a decrease in support for the CHP," he said.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu took over the secularist CHP in June after veteran leader Deniz Baykal resigned after a sex scandal. While support surged to 35 percent from a previous 20 percent after his immediate appointment, Kilicdaroglu failed to keep up this momentum, Erdem said.
Turkish markets are unlikely to move significantly if the constitutional changes pass, but could turn bearish if the government loses the plebiscite.
The KONDA poll was conducted on Sept. 4-5 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.