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Turkey referendum shows secularism eroding – but still a potent force

Turkey's ruling party cast its referendum win as a vote of confidence for further democratic reforms. But the 42 percent 'no' vote signals a polarized nation.

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his vote in a referendum on changes to the Constitution that was crafted in the wake of Turkey's 1980 military coup, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday.

Burhan Ozbilici/AP

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Turkey's ruling party lost no time Monday in preparing to further expand democratic reforms, just a day after its big win in a referendum on amending the country's Constitution.

The European Union welcomed Turkeys' approval of 26 constitutional amendments that bring the country one step closer to possible EU membership. President Obama heralded the nearly 80 percent turnout as an example of the “vibrancy of Turkey's democracy.”

The 58 percent backing by Turkish voters Sunday was widely interpreted as a vote of confidence for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development party, known as the AKP. As it has long promised, the Islam-rooted AKP will now begin drafting a new civilian constitution to replace the current military one, which was imposed in the aftermath of a 1980 coup.

But the result of Sunday's referendum also marks how polarized politics have become. A vociferous “no” campaign mounted by opposition parties still garnered 42 percent of the vote – with particularly strong showings in Turkey's more secular west and southern coast – though the final result demonstrated how the power of Turkey’s secular establishment has been eroding.

“I’m not sure if the Old Guard are capable of coming to terms with reality,” says Ihsan Dagi, a columnist of the Today’s Zaman newspaper. “The process of democratization in Turkey is a change of power…and those who used to enjoy the power, the privileges, and the resources of the system, do not really give them up voluntarily." The result is more division “because the apparent losers in this game are not prepared to give up. They will fight to the end,” says Mr. Dagi.

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