The core of the package, pushed through parliament in May by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), aims to restructure the higher echelons of Turkey’s judiciary, a secularist bastion at loggerheads with the government.


The amendments also curb the powers of the once-untouchable military, already humbled amid sprawling probes into alleged plans to discredit and overthrow the AKP that have landed dozens of soldiers in court.

The package has widened the rift between the AKP and its secularist opponents, who argue that the party, the moderate offshoot of a banned Islamist movement, aims to control the judiciary in a quest for an authoritarian grip on power.

Voting was to start at 0400 GMT in the eastern provinces, and an hour later in the West, in what, public opinion polls indicate, would be a tight contest to be decided by a small margin.

The results were expected several hours after polling stations close at 1400 GMT.

The package’s approval would be a major boost for the AKP ahead of general elections next year, in which it will seek a third straight term in power.

Some 50 million people are eligible to vote in the referendum that falls on the 30th anniversary of the 1980 military coup, which produced the current constitution, universally criticised for its oppressive spirit despite a series of amendments over the years.

The AKP, in power since 2002, insists the package will bring Turkish democracy closer to the norms of the European Union, which the country is seeking to join.

The opposition however charges that the AKP — its democratic credentials under mounting criticism — designed the amendments to propel cronies to senior judicial posts, control the courts and dilute the system of checks and balances.

No major opposition party has lent support to the package: the main Kurdish party has called for a boycott, with the others urging a “no” vote.

The EU has welcomed the amendments as a “step in the right direction” but expressed reservations over arrangements that would increase government influence in a key body dealing with judicial appointments.

The most controversial provisions modify the make-up of the Constitutional Court and the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors, and the way their members are elected.

The AKP narrowly escaped being outlawed by the Constitutional Court for undermining Turkey’s secular system in 2008.

The top courts have also blocked a series of AKP-sponsored legislation, including a bill that would have abolished a ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has slammed the senior judiciary as “shackles on our feet.”

Proponents of the amendments say the judicial elite has become a dogmatic caste enforcing authoritarian, hardline secularist and nationalist values and must be reformed.

Some secular liberals also back the package, lured by provisions that would limit the powers of military courts and abolish an article providing a judicial shield for the 1980 coup leaders.

The package also gives civil servants the right to collective bargaining, but not the right to strike, and emphasises women’s and children’s rights.

Voters are required to decide on all amendments with a single “yes” or “no”.