| Updated at: 0036 PST, Monday, September 13, 2010|
ISTANBUL: Turkish voters on Sunday approved constitutional reforms that the government says will strengthen the Muslim nation's democracy and help its candidacy for the European Union.
"The winner today was Turkish democracy," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told followers as he declared victory in Istanbul.
The outcome is a huge boost for Erdogan before a parliamentary election due by July next year, when his AK Party will seek to win a mandate to form a single party government for a third term -- a result that would be welcomed by investors.
According to an unofficial tally, the government won backing for its reforms with a "Yes" vote of 58 percent, NTV broadcaster reported, with 99 percent of ballot boxes counted.
Other media outlets, including state-run Anatolia news agency, showed the "Yes" vote well ahead.
The High Election Board was expected to release the official result on Monday.
Analysts saw the ruling AK Party drawing comfort from the margin of its victory, lessening chances of imprudent spending in the run up to the election.
"This strong vote of confidence means markets will gain more confidence in there being a one-party majority in next year's election," said Simon Quijano-Evans, an economist at Cheuvreux based in Vienna. "The bottom-line is to continue to look for strength in Turkish equities and foreign exchange."
While most of the package was uncontentious, secular critics say that changes to the way senior judges are selected will reduce the independence of the judiciary and make it easier for the AK Party to push through legislation without fear of being blocked by the Constitutional Court.
Though the AK Party has pushed political and economic reforms and spearheaded Turkey's drive for EU membership since coming to power in 2002, the secular establishment accuses it of harbouring Islamist ambitions.
The executive European Commission had backed Ankara's attempt to overhaul the judiciary, but accused the government last week of stifling public debate over the reforms.
PROTECTION AGAINST COUPS
Erdogan says reform of a constitution written after a military coup in 1980 was needed to protect democracy and improve Turkey's EU credentials.
"The regime of tutelage is now part of history. The aims of those who support coups will not be achieved," he said in his televised address. "Those who expect to benefit from ... dark places will be disappointed."
He said his party will now start work on a new constitution.
With the military's once-formidable power clipped by EU-driven reforms, the high courts have become the last redoubt of a conservative secularist establishment.
Among other measures in the reform package were steps to make the military more answerable to civilian courts and remove immunity from prosecution for the leaders of the 1980 coup.
Until the advent of the AK Party, a secular elite had traditionally held power since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded modern Turkey in 1923.
ROOTS IN POLITICAL ISLAM
Despite evolving out of Islamist parties banned by the courts, the AK Party has overseen a period of unprecedented economic growth.
Liberal on economic issues, and conservative on social policy matters, the party depicts itself as a Muslim version of Europe's Christian Democrat parties, and denies opponents' accusations that it has an Islamist agenda.
Erdogan has said secularism should apply to the state, not to people, and the reforms would lead to a more progressive democracy.
In 2008, his government tried to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves from attending universities or working in government offices, but the move was blocked by the Constitutional Court.
Analysts expect the AK Party, which draws its core support from a rising middle class of observant Muslims, to try again if it is re-elected.
Erdogan's government has also reoriented foreign policy in Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, by deepening ties with Iran, Syria and Iraq, and criticising Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
An embarrassing mix-up prevented the leader of the main secular opposition party from casting his ballot.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, appointed chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP) in May, had been unaware of changes to regulations limiting where members of parliament could vote, the party said in a statement.