ISTANBUL - Turkey’s parliament on Monday began debating a controversial new draft constitution aimed at expanding the powers of the presidency under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is expected to be put to a referendum by the spring.

The new constitution, which would replace the basic law drawn up after Turkey’s 1980 military coup, seeks to establish for the first time a presidential system for ruling the modern republic created from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

Critics have claimed the move is part of a power grab by Erdogan - Turkey’s premier from 2003-2014 and then president - for one-man rule in the wake of the failed coup in July.

But Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) say the presidential system would bring Turkey into line with countries such as France and the United States and is needed for efficient government.

The debates on the 18-article new constitution began after the draft was agreed by a parliamentary commission. The two readings are expected to last 13-15 days.

Turkey on Monday urged the European Union to revive stalled negotiations on Ankara joining the bloc, saying without it Europe was “incomplete” and calling for visa-free travel for its citizens immediately.

“The EU is still a strategic choice for our country,” President said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while insisting Ankara would not blindly accept the EU’s “inconsistent policies and double standards towards our country”.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said he wanted more chapters in the accession talks to be opened “by lifting artificial obstacles to our EU membership”.

A “chapter” is a specific area of negotiation, ranging on issues from human rights to economic cooperation. Cavusoglu did not specify which chapters he meant.

He also said Turkey expects “visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens to be provided immediately”, a reference to EU commitments on visa-free travel for nearly 80 million Turkish citizens made in March under an EU-Ankara deal to curb migrants entering Europe.


A small group of protesters rallied outside the parliament building in Ankara ahead of the debate, but police broke up the gathering using pepper spray on the demonstrators.

The AKP needs more than 330 votes - a three fifths majority - for the bill to be submitted to a referendum for voters’ approval.

However, the November 2015 election left the AKP short of a super majority in parliament and it is relying on the support of the opposition right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the fourth largest in the legislature.

Once approved by parliament, a referendum is expected to take place within 60 days, indicating a date in late March or early April.

Pro-government newspapers have predicted a thumping victory for the ruling party although other commentators have been more cautious.

The new constitution is opposed by the biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), whose deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan said it would restore powers “to the palace” taken away from the Ottoman Sultan a century ago.

“It will be the dissolution of all that our republic has achieved,” he said, criticising the draft as paving the way for “one man dictatorship”.

But AKP lawmaker Halil Firat, who helped draw up the proposed new constitution, said it would make clear the roles of government and president.

“Stability will be achieved. Decision-making will be quick.”

Under the proposed new constitution, the president would not have to sever links with a political party, as is the case now even though Erdogan co-founded the AKP.

It is also expected to lead to the creation of the posts of vice presidents and the abolition of the office of prime minister.

There would no longer be a formal cabinet but there will be ministers. The president will have the power to appoint and fire ministers.

The draft law says the president would be elected for a five-year term and serve for a maximum of two mandates.

If Erdogan’s existing time as president is not counted, it would mean in theory he could stay in office until 2029, with the next elections due in 2019.

Parliamentary elections would be held every five years - not four as at present - and on the same day as presidential polls. Both elections would be scheduled to take place on November 3, 2019.

Along with a slew of terror attacks, the political uncertainty has been one of the factors pressuring the Turkish lira which has lost 18 percent in value against the dollar over the last three months.

Analysts at Renaissance Capital said almost all decisions in Ankara had been seen through the prism of Erdogan’s dream of creating the executive presidency and a victory could allow much-needed stability.

“This is why Erdogan ultimately achieving his objective of an executive presidency is potentially the difference between a very strong 2017 for Turkish assets and a very weak one,” they said.