ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish voters strongly backed constitutional reforms on Sunday, handing a government led by conservative Muslims a new victory in a power struggle with secular opponents over the country’s direction.
“The winner today was Turkish democracy,” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told followers as he declared victory in a vote analysts said boosts the chances of the ruling AK Party winning a third consecutive term in office next year.
Erdogan had portrayed the reforms as an effort to boost the Muslim nation’s democracy and help its European Union candidacy.
Most of the package was uncontentious, but secular critics say changes to the way senior judges are named will strip the judiciary of its role in overseeing the executive.
The EU’s executive European Commission, which had criticized the government for stifling public debate, welcomed the results.
“As we consistently said in the past months, these reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of long-standing priorities in Turkey’s efforts toward fully complying with the accession criteria,” Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fuele said in a statement.
According to an unofficial tally, the government won backing for its package of 26 articles with a “Yes” vote of 58 percent, NTV broadcaster said, with 99 percent of ballot boxes counted.
State-run Anatolia news agency also showed the “Yes” vote at 58 percent with 97 percent of the vote counted.
The margin of victory was larger than expected, provided official results to be released by the High Election Board on Monday confirm the trend.
While the outcome will be greeted by investors as a sign of confidence in a government credited with bringing in record foreign investment and managing strong economic growth, it will reinforce ideological divisions in the deeply polarized country.
“The ruling party will become even less receptive to the opposition, and the opposition will use tougher words and approaches to undermine the government,” Faruk Logoglu, a former ambassador to Washington said.
The leader of the secularist opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said the government had taken a “big step” toward controlling the judiciary and his party would oppose AK attempts to monopolize power.
Analysts saw AK drawing comfort from the victory, lessening chances of imprudent spending in the run up to the election.
“This strong vote of confidence means markets will gain more confidence in there being a one-party majority in next year’s election,” said Simon Quijano-Evans, an economist at Cheuvreux based in Vienna. “The bottom-line is to continue to look for strength in Turkish equities and foreign exchange.”
Though AK has pushed political and economic reforms and spearheaded Turkey’s drive for EU accession since coming to power in 2002, the secular establishment accuses it of using its parliamentary majority to introduce a hidden Islamist agenda.
Until the advent of AK, a secular elite had held power since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923.
With the army’s once-formidable power clipped by EU-driven reforms, high courts are seen as the secularists’ last redoubt.
Erdogan said Turkey had passed a historic threshold by voting to change a charter written after a coup in 1980. The military has ousted four democratically elected governments.
“The regime of tutelage is now part of history. The aims of those who support coups will not be achieved,” he said in his televised address.
He said he will now start work on a brand new constitution.
Among other measures in the reform package were steps to make the military more answerable to civilian courts and remove immunity from prosecution for the leaders of the 1980 coup.
Diplomats said Erdogan will see the vote as a mandate for Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.
Under AK, Turkey, the only NATO Muslim member, has deepened ties with Iran, Syria and Iraq, and criticized Israel’s policy toward Palestinians, raising concerns of a change of axis.
Liberal on economic issues, and conservative on social policy matters, AK depicts itself as a Muslim version of Europe’s Christian Democrat parties, and denies opponents’ accusations that it has an Islamist agenda.
In 2008, Erdogan’s government tried to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves from attending universities, but the move was blocked by the Constitutional Court.
Analysts expect AK, which draws its core support from a rising middle class of observant Muslims, to try again.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson, Ayla Jean Yackley, Tulay Kardeniz and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Charles Dick