ANKARA Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan laid out his case for a new constitution and a more powerful presidency on Thursday, saying it was not a matter of personal ambition but a necessity in a country whose parliamentary system he said was out of date.
Erdogan, who won Turkey's first direct presidential election in August 2014, said a head of state elected by the people should have more than a symbolic role. Previously, parliament had picked Turkey's president.
The current situation, in which both the prime minister and president are popularly elected, is unsustainable, Erdogan said in a speech to more than 1,000 members of civil society groups that was seen as the start of a public campaign for the changes.
"In building the 'New Turkey', we think Turkey needs an executive presidential system and a new constitution. This discussion should not be presented as a matter of my personal ambition," he told a packed conference hall.
"If the presidential system is the right choice for Turkey's future then it should be put into practice," he said.
Erdogan served as prime minister for more than a decade and ran for the presidency in 2014 in the expectation of swift constitutional reform that would grant the head of state new executive powers. But his plans have been impeded in part because of opposition fears of creeping authoritarianism.
Opposition parties agree on the need to replace the current constitution, born of a 1980 army coup and still bearing the stamp of its military authors, in a country which is a candidate for European Union membership. But they oppose the plans to entirely overhaul what is now a largely ceremonial presidency.
Erdogan has already stretched the powers of the post since becoming head of state, insisting that even without constitutional change, his election by the people automatically granted him extra authority. In that vein, he has chaired several cabinet meetings in the presidential palace.
Those close to Erdogan say a presidential system would give Turkey the firm leadership it needs to prosper despite regional instability, including the war in neighboring Syria.
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Erdogan said he expected political parties and civil society groups to take part in forging a new constitution and that the separation of powers would be one of the main points of debate.
The people, not parliament, should ultimately decide on the new text, he said, reinforcing expectations that a referendum will be held, possibly as early as the autumn.
The ruling AK Party, founded by Erdogan, holds 317 of 550 seats in parliament, but would need 330 votes to take a new constitution to a referendum and 367 to change it directly.
"We're aiming to get the support of 14 more deputies. If it's possible, we can bring a new constitution and the new presidential system to a referendum by the end of this year," a senior government official told Reuters.
"It's clear it won't be easy. But we will inform the people and create pressure on parliament," the official said, adding that while some in the AKP had been skeptical, they were increasingly swinging behind Erdogan's presidential vision.
A columnist in the Milliyet newspaper said this month that the AKP could call an early election, betting it could win enough of a stronger parliamentary majority to change the constitution unopposed.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this week there were no such plans. Another election could be destabilizing for Turkey after four votes in the past two years, a political cycle which polarized the electorate and slowed progress on badly needed economic reforms such as liberalizing the labor market and cutting red tape for investors.
But senior traders at several Turkish banks have said in recent days that nervous investors may start to price in an early election if opposition support is seen to be falling.
"This would mean delaying long-awaited reforms. That's the last thing Turkey needs," said one Istanbul-based senior trader.
(Additional reporting by Ercan Gurses and Nevzat Devranoglu; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Daren Butler and Mark Heinrich)