Erdogan focuses on constitution as Turkey's top brass quit

ISTANBUL Sat Jul 30, 2011 1:49pm EDT

Turkey's Ground Forces Chief General Isik Kosaner attends a ceremony in Ankara, in this July 16, 2010 file picture. Kosaner, along with the heads of the ground, naval and air forces have resigned, broadcaster CNN Turk reported on July 29, 2011. REUTERS/Umit Bektas/Files

Turkey's Ground Forces Chief General Isik Kosaner attends a ceremony in Ankara, in this July 16, 2010 file picture. Kosaner, along with the heads of the ground, naval and air forces have resigned, broadcaster CNN Turk reported on July 29, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas/Files

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Saturday to press ahead with plans for a new constitution which he said would boost democracy, but he made no mention of the country's top military commanders quitting in what was a pre-recorded speech.

The armed forces commander General Isik Kosaner stepped down on Friday evening along with the army, navy and air force chiefs in protest at the jailing of 250 officers on charges of conspiring against Erdogan's government.

Erdogan's office has issued a statement expressing appreciation for the commanders' service but he has not spoken directly on the matter and Saturday's televised speech focused on his new government's plans for the economy and constitution.

"I believe our biggest duty is to prepare a new constitution, democratic and liberal, without shortcomings and meeting the needs of today," Erdogan said in an 'address to the nation' which did not divert from the pre-written script.

It was not clear when the recording was made.

Erdogan's ruling AK Party, in power since 2002, won a third successive parliamentary election on June 12 with 50 percent of the vote, giving it a strong mandate to press ahead with its constitutional plans.

"Turkey cannot continue on its path with a constitution prepared in the extraordinary conditions of a period when democracy was shelved," he said, alluding to the time after a 1980 coup when the current charter was prepared.

PRESIDENTIAL AMBITIONS

While there is broad acceptance across political parties on the need for a new constitution, Erdogan's opponents fear he may use the opportunity to strengthen his own position.

It is an open secret that Erdogan is interested in switching to a more presidential form of government, raising speculation that Erdogan intends to become president once his third and final term as prime minister is over.

There are also concerns among secular Turks that the AK Party, for all its talk of democracy and pluralism, will seek to shape a constitution around its own socially conservative values.

Though it sprang from a banned Islamist party, the AK eschews the Islamist label and during its decade in office there has been little in the way of legislation to suggest it was following a religious agenda, other than efforts to allow women wearing the Muslim headscarf to attend universities and work in government offices.

The AK did, however, come out on top in a series of confrontations with the military and judiciary, the twin bastions of secularism in Turkey.

Erdogan did not refer to the resignations by the military top brass and only touched on the armed forces issue in underlining the government's determination to fight terrorism.

"Those powers who cannot stand Turkey growing, developing and becoming a powerful country in the region, step in to try and obstruct it or get others to do so," he said.

"I want it to be known that terrorism targets Turkey's growth, progress, development and most importantly brotherhood," he said.

For the last 27 years, Turkey's armed forces have been engaged in a conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas in which more than 40,000 people have died.

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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