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Erdoğan backs away from idea to hold referendum on headscarf freedom

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday backed away from his recent proposal to hold a referendum on guaranteeing a woman’s right to wear an Islamic headscarf in public venues, local media reported on Monday.

Erdoğan on Oct. 22 proposed holding a nationwide vote on a constitutional amendment that would guarantee a woman’s right to wear a headscarf in state institutions, schools and universities, saying, “If this issue is not resolved in the parliament, let’s take it to the nation. Let the nation decide.”

After his Justice and Development Party (AKP) negotiated his proposal with all the parties that have a group in parliament over the past week, the president commented on the issue again following a cabinet meeting on Monday.

He said the Public Alliance, which includes his ruling AKP and its ally, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), would bring the proposal to parliament if a consensus cannot be reached on the issue since they “don’t find it appropriate to hold a referendum on matters related to fundamental rights and freedoms.”

The headscarf issue has dominated political debate since the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader, Kemal 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 didn’t think holding a referendum on headscarf freedom was necessary in the first place and 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.

The CHP’s election partner, the İYİ Party, was also cool 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.

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.

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.

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.

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