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Turkey's government faces referendum test by Sibel Utku Bila

Turkey's Islamist-rooted government geared up today for a September referendum on reforms to curb the judiciary's powers, after a top court scrapped only a fraction of the disputed package.

world Updated: Jul 08, 2010 15:56 IST

Turkey's Islamist-rooted government geared up on Thursday for a September referendum on reforms to curb the judiciary's powers, after a top court scrapped only a fraction of the disputed package.

The Constitutional Court said late on Wednesday that it had rejected a request by the secularist opposition to cancel the entire package, annuling only three provisions in what observers described as a "surgical" intervention.

The ruling represents a "mid-way formula" and "a solution that will not fan further tensions" in Turkey, the liberal Radikal daily wrote on Thursday.

"The possibility of early elections has been discarded.The danger of political chaos has been eliminated," the popular Aksam said.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been widely expected to call snap polls if the court had scrapped the whole package or its key elements.

The amendments minus the scrapped parts will be put on a referendum on September 12, in a major vote of confidence for the AKP ahead of general elections next year, in which the party will seek a third straight win.

The AKP pushed the amendments through parliament in May, overriding fierce objections by the opposition and senior judges.

It moved to curb the powers of key judicial bodies and change their make-up after frequent clashes with top courts, which are dominated by staunch secularists who have often blocked AKP-sponsored legislation.

The government slammed the Constitutional Court for interfering in the content of the amendments, but said the package preserved its reformist nature.

"The amendments, even with some phrases removed, constitute a serious reform to the constitution. From now on, we are in the referendum process," Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said.

Turkey's constitution is a legacy of the 1980 military coup, and even though the need for a major overhaul is widely accepted, the AKP failed to secure opposition support for the amendments.

The opposition charges that the AKP, the moderate offshoot of a banned Islamist movement, designed the package to tighten its grip on power by extending government control over key judicial bodies.

The AKP rejects the charges, arguing the amendments will help Turkey align with EU democracy norms.

Key articles modify the composition of the Constitutional Court and the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which deals with judicial appointments, and the way their members are elected.

Wednesday's ruling concerned technicalities on the election of members to the two bodies. It gave top courts a wider choice in determining candidates and restricted the pool of those eligible for the HSYK by scrapping a provision that would have enabled economists and public administrators to serve on the board.

Other provisions, untouched by court, limit the jurisdiction of military courts and allow civilian courts to try soldiers in peace time for coup attempts and offences related to national security and organised crime.

Another measure paves the way for the army chief and his top four aides to be tried at the Supreme Court.

The amendments also allow for the trial of the leaders of the 1980 coup, give civil servants the right to collective bargaining, but not the right to strike, and expand women's and children's rights.

First Published: Jul 08, 2010 15:51 IST