Turkey's Erdogan could govern until 2029 under plans to change constitution

November 16, 2016 6:43 AM EST

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan adjusts earphones during a news conference in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, September 5, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo


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By Ercan Gurses and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan could govern Turkey until 2029 with expanded executive powers under proposals the ruling AK Party hopes will go to a referendum next spring, officials who have seen the latest draft told Reuters on Wednesday.

Erdogan and his supporters argue Turkey needs the strong leadership of an executive presidency, akin to the system in the United States or France, to avoid the fragile coalition governments that hampered its development in the past.

Opponents see the proposed change as a vehicle for Erdogan's ambition, and fear it will bring increasing authoritarianism to a country already under fire from Western allies over its deteriorating record on rights and freedoms, especially after widespread purges in the wake of a failed military coup in July.

The AKP, founded by Erdogan a decade and a half ago, is aiming to hold a referendum on the issue next spring and is seeking support from the nationalist MHP opposition order to win parliamentary approval for such a vote.

Under the latest draft, presented to the MHP on Tuesday, Erdogan could assume the position of "acting" executive president immediately after the referendum if the changes are approved. A presidential election would then be held, as scheduled, when his term expires in 2019.

Under the constitution's current two-term limit and provided he wins the 2019 election, Erdogan would be able to rule until 2024 only. But under the proposed executive presidency, the clock would reset, allowing him another two terms.

"We have come to a conclusion in our work on constitutional changes and will bring it to the parliament in the coming days," Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a conference of AKP provincial heads in Ankara on Wednesday, without giving details.

"We will continue to seek a base for consensus with the other parties. After that, the decision lies with the people."

According to two senior officials who have seen the draft, the president would be eligible to serve a maximum of two five-year terms and would be able to issue presidential decrees on most executive matters without the need to consult parliament.

The president would have up to two deputies and would directly appoint the heads of the military and intelligence agencies, university rectors, senior bureaucrats, and some top judicial bodies, expanding the powers of the role, the officials said.

WESTERN CONCERNS

Such changes would likely alarm the European Union, which has been critical of the post-coup attempt crackdown.

Turkey, which aspires to join the EU, has dismissed or detained more than 110,000 civil servants, members of the security forces and other officials in a crackdown it says is justified by the gravity of the threat from the July 15 putsch.

Erdogan has ridden a wave of nationalist support since the abortive coup, vowing to crack down on Turkey's enemies at home and abroad, and support from the MHP will be vital for realizing his ambition of a stronger presidency.

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has indicated his party could support the reforms and said on Tuesday that party lawyers were assessing the AKP's latest draft.

Any constitutional change needs the support of at least 367 deputies in the 550-seat assembly to pass directly, and of 330 to go to a referendum. The AKP has 317 seats, and the MHP 39.

Other opposition parties oppose a stronger presidency.

Erdogan, speaking at a press conference before leaving for an official visit to Pakistan on Wednesday, said the executive president should not have to cut ties to his political party.

Under the current constitution, the head of state is supposed to be impartial and renounce party ties as part of a system of checks and balances. Erdogan's comments suggest he could seek to resume leadership of the AKP, by far Turkey's largest political movement, if elected in 2019.

(Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Raissa Kasolowsky)



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