|Many opponents of the ruling AKP fear that the secular nature of the state is under threat [EPA]
Istanbul is the European Capital of Culture for 2010. A cosmopolitan city, it is where east and west meet geographically, archeologically and socially.
In the past few weeks, Istiklal Cadessi, the main pedestrian street in the famous Taksim district, has witnessed a gay-rights demonstration, a jazz festival, an international folkloric dance and costume parade, and a demonstration by an Islamic movementf supporting Uighur rights in China - a true example of the amalgam that makes up the Turkish social fabric, something many in Istanbul consider to be under threat.
Besides the vibrant social scene, a wave of political change taking place in Turkey is causing fear among opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), mainly regarding the secular future of the state.
While the ruling party refers to the proposed constitutional amendments as an "EU reform package," critics fear this is a move by the AKP to Islamise the country.
There are also concerns that the Islamic-leaning AKP is using the European constitutional reform recommendations as an excuse to bring the military and judiciary - known to be the custodians of the secular state - under its control to pursue an Islamic agenda.
In 2008, the AKP narrowly escaped a ban by the Constitutional Court for allegedly undermining the secular state. The same court that year revoked an amendment by the AKP-dominated parliament allowing women to wear headscarves in public universities.
According to Omer Faruk Kaleyci, the AKP's deputy chairman of foreign affairs, this is the first time since the 1982 constitution - insituted after a military coup two years earlier - that the Turkish parliament is undertaking major reforms.
He says members of the AKP "understand the fears of the opposition. This is something new to the people. No one has challenged the current system before".
|In 2008, the ruling AKP narrowly escaped a ban for 'undermining the secular state' [EPA]
The "reform package" failed to get sufficient votes in parliament to be adopted outright but enough to be decided by a national referendum.
The 28-article package includes amendments allowing the prosecution of military commanders in civilian courts and giving parliament a say in appointing constitutional and supreme court judges.
On July 8, the much-anticipated ruling of the Constitutional Court came mostly in favour of the AKP. The court partially annulled two crucial articles related to the restructuring of the judiciary but endorsed the rest of the package, an act the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) deemed unconstitutional.
According to Kaleyci, the "amendments that the current government is undertaking are a step towards a more democratic Turkish state, that in the future would be accepted by the European Union, a historical dream of the Turkish people for the last 50 years".
In a written statement, Angela Filote, the representative of the commissioner for enlargement and European neighbourhood policy, welcomed the reforms calling them "a positive step in the right direction as it addresses a number of longstanding shortcomings which the EU has identified over the years in the progress reports and the accession partnerships".
While championing most of the reforms in this round of parliamentary voting, the AKP has lost its battle against the judiciary. But the party says the "democratic revolution" for the democratisation of Turkey goes on.
The party's agenda for the 2011 parliamentary elections will be branded "Constitutional Change". Hence, challenging the Constitutional Court again.
Opposition parties, lead by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the CHP, vowed to vote "no" to the constitutional changes. However, Kaleyci seems confident that the AKP will get 60 per cent approval ratings in the referendum, as "this is the will of the people".
It is no coincidence that the AKP chose September 12 as the date for the referendum. The date marks 30 years since General Kenan Evren's military coup in 1980. A three-year military rule was imposed on the country and a new constitution was approved by a referendum in 1982.
Turks remember those days as marred by clamp downs on freedoms and civil liberties. So for the AKP, this is the time to turn the page - ending military guardianship and moving forward to a more democratic Turkey aspiring for EU membership.
Islamic or democratic?
The latest developments in Turkish politics clearly indicate one thing: The gap between the AKP and its opponents is widening.
While government changes are being hailed by the conservative elements of Turkish society, the AKP is seen to be alienating more secular and liberal groups.
For the first time in the history of modern Turkey, the protectors of the secular state - the judiciary and the military - are being challenged by an Islamic-leaning government, something AKP opponents are worried about.
Yet the contradictory nature of Turkish politics leaves one wondering how the supposedly Islamist party is calling for more reform and democratisation, and the more secular elements of society are holding on to the army tutelage of the government.
The referendum will be a litmus test for the upcoming parliamentary election in 2011, which in turn might signal a turning point in Turkey's modern history.
Will Turkey become more Islamic as the opposition claims, or more democratic as the ruling AKP claims?
When I asked Kaleyci, a lawyer who led the AKP Youth Movement before moving to his foreign-affairs role, where he would like to see his country in 10 years, he said: "My dream is to see Turkey in the European Union".