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Analysis: 'Street fighter' Erdogan triumphs but vote exposes divisions

By Simon Hooper, CNN
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led his party to a string of election triumphs since 2002.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led his party to a string of election triumphs since 2002.
  • Referendum highlights division between AKP supporters, secularist opponents
  • 58 percent of voters back government package to reform constitution
  • Opposition to government concentrated on coasts, European mainland
  • Constitutional changes will limit power of Turkey's staunchly secular judiciary

(CNN) -- Voters in Turkey on Sunday handed an emphatic victory to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan but results in a referendum on constitutional reform have exposed stark divisions within Turkish society, according to politicians and analysts.

Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) have dominated Turkish politics since winning power in 2002 and the party's latest victory suggests it will be hard to stop in next year's parliamentary vote.

Almost 58 percent voted in favor of the government-backed reform package which included key amendments to the judicial system, abolishing the immunity enjoyed by leaders of a 1980 military coup and measures to promote gender equality and protect children, the elderly and the disabled.

The changes were opposed by a broad spectrum of opposition parties, while the country's leading Kurdish party, the BDP, urged its supporters to boycott the vote.

Istanbul-based journalist Andrew Finkel told CNN those calling for a "No" vote had turned the referendum into a vote of confidence in the government.

"They campaigned less on the basis of the merits of the constitutional reform package than on whether people liked the government or not -- and the government picked up that challenge," said Finkel, author of "Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know."

AKP lawmaker Suat Kiniklioglu said the opposition had made a "fundamental mistake" by running against the government's record. But he said the party had also persuaded people of the need for reform.

Erdogan's appeal to Turks to free themselves of a constitution shaped in the aftermath of the army's seizure of power in 1980 resonated with many voters, he said. Sunday's vote was held on the 30th anniversary of that coup.

Video: Turkey: A new chapter?
Video: Crucial Turkish vote

"We convinced the electorate that the content of the package is good for Turkey. People really thought this was a step forward," Kiniklioglu told CNN.

The government was also defending a strong economic record and Turkey's increasing influence in Europe and Middle East, highlighted earlier this year by its dispute with Israel prompted by the deaths of Turkish citizens aboard a Gaza-bound aid ship.

"One cannot underestimate the extent of change that has occurred in the past eight years," said Kiniklioglu. "Turkey has become a regional and global power. The public register these things."

The personal popularity enjoyed by Erdogan among many Turks also remains a key factor in his party's success, said Finkel.

"Without him his party would not be where it is," he said. "He is a populist politician who knows how to talk to his electorate."

Kiniklioglu said Erdogan had visited almost 40 cities in the final month of the campaign: "He is a relentless street fighter. He's out there every day and he gets his energy from his work."

Yet Erdogan, who was once imprisoned and banned from politics on a charge of inciting religious hatred, remains one of the most divisive leaders Turkey has seen in decades.

Some accuse him of seeking to establish "one-man rule" with ambitions of becoming a "modern-day sultan." Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, his AKP ally, were booed Sunday night as they attended Turkey's defeat by the U.S. in the final of the World Basketball Championships in Istanbul.

"Nobody can stand in the way of Erdogan now," columnist Mehmet Yilmaz wrote Monday in the Hurriyet newspaper. "What Turkey will see now is a series of steps that will turn him into Putin."

Finkel said Sunday's vote showed that Turkey remains a polarized society, with AKP dominating the country's Anatolian heartland but failing to win support along the wealthier and more industrialized southern and western coasts and in mainland Europe.

Almost 70 percent voted against the reform package in the western province of Mugla, while more than 76 percent backed it in Kiniklioglu's Cankiri province, a typical AKP stronghold in the center of the country, according to Turkey's Supreme Election Council website.

Meanwhile high levels of abstention in Turkey's southeast suggested the region's Kurdish majority had heeded calls to boycott the vote.

He is a relentless street fighter. He's out there every day and he gets his energy from his work
--Suat Kiniklioglu on Recep Tayyip Erdogan

"It shows the perennial problems of Turkey -- ie. the Kurdish issue and a mistrust of secular Turks of the elected government -- have not been solved by this referendum," said Finkel.

Kiniklioglu admitted addressing that polarization was the "fundamental challenge" facing AKP.

"The challenge will be how we go about a process that involves all segments of society and allows them to contribute to this process in a way that would defuse this polarization in Turkish politics," he said.

Opponents in the run-up to Sunday's vote also accused AKP of being less motivated by the need for constitutional reform than protecting their own political interests by breaking the power of the constitutional court -- one of the country's last bastions of secularism.

The party has repeatedly clashed with Turkey's secular elite and came close to being banned by the country's top court in 2008 for alleged anti-secular activities. A senior Erdogan aide, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media, admitted to CNN ahead of the vote that the package would "break the caste system of the judiciary."

"They live under the threat that the judiciary will turn against them," Finkel said. "These are measures which allow them more oversight over how judges are appointed so it does open the way -- not the door completely but at least a crack -- to political supervision of the judiciary."

But Finkel said the government had engendered a sense of confidence among many Turks that their country was on the mend after decades of dominance by its military and secular elites.

"There is a certain amount of partisan support (for AKP) because they seem to be tackling the problems of militarism and Turkey not being fully accountable and democratic," he said.

"Hopefully this will not simply be a package of constitutional reforms; it will be an encouragement to the government to enact a new and more democratic constitution to replace a document that was written under martial law."

CNN's Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert contributed to this story.