ANKARA, Oct 21 (Reuters) Turkish voters resoundingly backed a plan to have future presidents elected by the people instead of by parliament, according to partial results from today's nationwide referendum.
With around half the votes counted, 72 per cent of voters approved the constitutional changes proposed by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's ruling centre-right AK Party, while 28 per cent voted no.
Erdogan says the reform will strengthen democracy in this Muslim but secular nation that wants to join the European Union.
President Abdullah Gul, whose position will not be affected by the outcome of the referendum, had also urged a 'yes' vote.
Gul, a close ally of Erdogan and a former foreign minister, was elected by parliament for a seven-year term in August. His successor will be elected by voters in 2014.
Voters also endorsed plans to reduce the president's term to five years, renewable for a further five, and to cut parliament's term to four years from five.
At present the president can serve only one seven-year term.
Early indications pointed to a low turnout, with fewer than half the 42.6 million eligible voters casting their ballot.
Voting was overshadowed by fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey near the Iraqi border.
The military General Staff said 12 soldiers and 32 rebels had been killed in the clashes, which threaten to trigger a Turkish army incursion into northern Iraq where the rebels are hiding.
The AK Party opted to hold the referendum after clashing in May with Turkey's powerful secular elite, which includes judges and army generals, over its presidential candidate.
The secularists had tried to block Gul's election, fearing the former Islamist would try to undermine Turkey's separation of state and religion if elected, a charge he strongly rejects.
Gul was finally elected by lawmakers after Erdogan called a snap parliamentary poll in July which the AK Party resoundingly won. The government decided it would still press ahead with the referendum, even though Gul has now become head of state.
The main opposition parties had urged a 'no' vote, saying the proposal smacked of populism and would upset constitutional balances in Turkey.
In Turkey, the government and parliament hold most power, but the president can veto laws once and appoints many key officials. He is also commander in chief of the armed forces.
The AK Party government is currently drawing up a new constitution for Turkey. Erdogan has said he wants to transfer some of the president's powers to parliament and make the head of state a more symbolic figure.
REUTERS GL RAI2256