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Opposition gives cold shoulder to Erdoğan proposal for vote on headscarf freedom

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Turkey’s main opposition party and its election partner have rebuffed a proposal from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to hold a referendum on guaranteeing a woman’s right to wear a headscarf in public venues, according to Turkish media.

Erdoğan on Saturday proposed a nationwide vote to guarantee a woman’s right to wear a headscarf in state institutions, schools and universities.

“If you have the courage, let’s put this to a referendum. … Let the nation make the decision,” Erdoğan said in remarks directed to main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

The headscarf issue has dominated political debate since Kılıçdaroğlu proposed a law to guarantee the right to wear a headscarf to alleviate any fears his secular party would reinstate a ban which for long years remained in place, leading to widespread rights violations of headscarf-wearing women.

However, Kılıçdaroğlu does not think holding a referendum on headscarf freedom is necessary as he accused Erdoğan of trying to act like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is notorious for putting human rights issues such as those related to LGBT people or refugees to a referendum.

“This is Turkey, not Hungary. Support the bill [guaranteeing headscarf freedom for women]. Why are you talking about a referendum?” Kılıçdaroğlu told Erdoğan.

The CHP’s election partner, the İYİ Party, was also cold to the idea of holding a referendum on headscarf freedom, with the party’s spokesperson, Kürşad Zorlu, responding in the negative to Erdoğan’s referendum call. Zorlu tweeted that the people, who are overwhelmed by the problems, were expecting to go to the ballot boxes for the elections, not for a referendum.

The headscarf was at the center of debates in the 1990s, but no party today is proposing a ban in Muslim-majority Turkey.

“We made mistakes in the past regarding the headscarf,” Kılıçdaroğlu admitted earlier this month. “It’s time to leave that issue behind us.”

Kılıçdaroğlu seeks to show religious voters they have nothing to fear from his secular party next year, experts say.

In response, Erdoğan proposed a constitutional amendment that would “soon” be sent for approval to parliament, where his party holds a small majority with his alliance partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

But under Turkish law, constitutional amendments require the vote of 400 lawmakers to pass without the need for a referendum, and so the CHP would need to give its backing.

Otherwise, with 360 votes, a proposal can be put to the people.

“If this issue cannot be resolved in parliament, we will submit it to the people,” Erdoğan said.

The Turkish president is accused by many of abusing people’s religious sensitivities to remain in power and keep his voter base. Public surveys show the AKP losing significant support amid serious financial problems in the country with inflation at a record level of over 80 percent.

In the meantime, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ announced on Monday that the government would push for an amendment to the constitution’s Article 24, which concerns freedom of religion, and Article 41, on protection of the family, for headscarf freedom, saying that the path suggested by Kılıçdaroğlu could still lead to a headscarf ban in the future.

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