Hopes fade for a new Turkish constitution

ANKARA Mon Nov 18, 2013 1:23pm EST

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara November 13, 2013. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara November 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's hopes for a new constitution, meant to enshrine democratic freedoms and further distance it from the era of military coups, suffered a setback on Monday when a cross-party commission admitted defeat in drafting a new charter.

A new constitution had been one of the key pledges of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's third term in office, meant to replace a text born of a 1980 coup which, despite numerous revisions, still bears the stamp of military tutelage.

The failure of the commission will make parliamentary elections, due in 2015, all the more important. If Erdogan's AK Party can control a two thirds majority, he could introduce reforms without opposition support, including the creation of the strong executive presidency he seeks.

The cross-party panel had been trying for two years to reconcile its differences on some of the most deeply divisive issues in modern Turkey, from the definition of Turkish citizenship to the protection of religious freedoms.

The four parties had only reached agreement on around 60 articles, less than half of what a draft would require, and the talks had become deadlocked over recent weeks.

"I believe today they figured the need to unplug a commission which had survived on artificial respiration," Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters following a weekly cabinet meeting, blaming the panel's opposition members.

"I think Turkey has lost a lot. We had very good intentions, but those who could not get out of daily political fights did not allow us to draft a new constitution," he said.

The leaders of the four parties would be told by letter that the commission had failed, Mehmet Ali Sahin, a deputy head of the ruling AK Party, told reporters.

Erdogan has dominated politics since his Islamist-rooted AK Party came to office in 2002, presiding over Turkey's emergence as a power in the Middle East and over an unprecedented rise in prosperity.

He has muzzled a military that had ousted four governments since 1960, all but winning a battle with the old secular elite which emerged when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic on the World War One ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

A new constitution is part of the legacy he had hoped to bequeath and was a key election pledge in 2011.

EXECUTIVE PRESIDENCY

But the parliamentary commission, including the social democratic CHP, pro-Kurdish BDP and nationalist MHP opposition parties, had repeatedly missed deadlines.

One of the most contentious issues had been the creation of an executive presidency championed by Erdogan, although he had signaled a willingness to drop this demand in recent months in the interests of reaching a broader consensus.

Erdogan, arguably the most powerful Turkish leader since Ataturk, has made little secret of his ambition to run for president in polls due next year.

Barred by party rules from running for prime minister again, he had wanted to bring teeth to a post that is now largely ceremonial.

Much could now hang on parliamentary elections due in 2015.

Approval of constitutional amendments requires two-thirds support in the 550-seat assembly, or 367 votes, which the AK Party, with a current 326 seats, would struggle to achieve.

Should it increase its majority in 2015 it could alter the constitution, including the creation of an executive presidency, without needing the support of the opposition.

But Erdogan's opponents, along with some dissenting voices in his own party, fear an executive presidency could hand too much power to a man they view as having increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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