Middle East

Turkey takes key step to expanding Erdogan powers

Turkey was a key step closer on Monday to dramatically expanding the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after parliament approved, on first reading, a bill critics fear will lead to a one-man rule.

The parliament backed the two final sections of the 18-article new constitution late Sunday, after a marathon week of debating that began on January 9 and included sessions that often lasted late into the night.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) mustered the necessary 330 or more votes — a three-fifths majority — needed to adopt the constitutional change and to send it to a referendum for final approval.

The constitution plan will now go to a second reading in the Ankara parliament expected to start on Wednesday, where the 18 articles will again be debated one by one.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus wrote on Twitter that with the changes "God willing, Turkey will reach a more efficient governance model."

He later told A-Haber television in an interview that it was possible the referendum would take place as soon as the start of April.

'No good news'

The debates have been fractious and last week saw some of the worst fighting in years in the parliament with punches thrown, deputies bloodied and one lawmaker even claiming to have been bitten in the leg.

The proposed changes, which would create an executive presidency for the first time in modern Turkey, are controversial and far-reaching.

The president would have the power to appoint and fire ministers, while the post of prime minister will be abolished for the first time in Turkey's history.

Instead, there would be a vice president, or possibly several.

With Turkey already under a state of emergency for almost six months following the July 15 failed coup, the proposed changes would also widen the scope of conditions in which the president can declare an emergency.

Parliamentary elections and presidential ballots would be held simultaneously, with the draft giving November 3, 2019 as the poll date.

The changes are opposed by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). The third largest party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is boycotting the vote.

Opponents have accused Erdogan of marching towards authoritarian rule and seeking total control in the aftermath of the failed July 15 coup aimed at ousting him from power.

"The constitutional changes pressed by the ruling party are not good news for Turkey," Faruk Logoglu, former deputy leader of the CHP, told AFP.

He claimed the plan would prove problematic on a wide range of issues from democracy to judicial independence.

In a symbolic gesture, CHP MPs piled up copies of the current constitution by the voting boxes in parliament as they cast their ballots.

Meanwhile, a dozen HDP MPs, including the two co-leaders, are behind bars on charges of supporting Kurdish militants, accusations they claim are political, and cannot take part.

'Turkey's rise'

The AKP, which has 317 seats in the 550-MP chamber, lacks the necessary three-fifths super majority. But the changes have won the support of most MPs from the fourth party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The MHP's enigmatic leader Devlet Bahceli, who took up the reins of the party in 1997, has emerged as the main ally of the AKP in the constitutional change.

Authorities insist that the changes are needed to make government more efficient and would be little different to the presidential systems in the United States or France.

"The constitutional changes will boost our country. God willing, no one will stand in the way of Turkey's new construction and rise," Erdogan said on Saturday.

Prime minister from 2003 before becoming president in 2014, Erdogan has transformed Turkey in one-and-a-half decades in power, overseeing ambitious infrastructure projects and an industrial resurgence.

But critics also accuse him of presiding over a creeping Islamisation and polarising to dangerous levels the country's diverse society.

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