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Turkey's nationalist opposition hints at support for constitutional change

ANKARA (Reuters) - The leader of Turkey’s nationalist opposition indicated on Thursday that his party might support constitutional changes that could give President Tayyip Erdogan more power.

Turkey's main opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli addresses his party MPs during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Last month, Turkey’s ruling AK Party said it would soon submit a bill to parliament to expand the powers of the presidency, paving the way for a referendum which the nationalist opposition said it would not oppose.

Erdogan has long wanted an executive presidency, a Turkish version of the system in the United States or France, saying the country needs strong leadership. His opponents fear the change would mean growing authoritarianism.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim met with the chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, on Thursday to discuss changing the constitution.

“We view the prime minister’s thoughts on the constitution, which he shared with me today, as positive and appropriate,” Bahceli wrote on Twitter following his meeting with Yildirim.

“While there is no political agreement yet, I hope the coming period can solve the de facto situation forced on the country,” Bahceli added.

Any constitutional change requires the support of at least 367 deputies in the 550-seat assembly to pass directly, and of 330 deputies to go to a referendum. The AKP has 317 seats, and the MHP 40.

Yildirim said the government would seek a referendum on the executive presidency however much support it won in parliament, describing it as “the greatest reform to open the locks and undo the knots in the system”.

The two biggest opposition parties, the secularist CHP and the pro-Kurdish HDP, both oppose an executive presidency and some opinion polls have shown that a majority of Turks also do not want the change.

But Erdogan has seen his effective power and popularity rise by riding a wave of patriotism since an abortive military coup on July 15 that failed to oust him.

The MHP wants to see debate on reinstating the death penalty, which Erdogan has continuously said he would approve if it passed parliament, revived as part of the AKP’s constitutional change package. The nationalist party also looks to reel in voters by potentially being the party to end the “de facto state” in which Erdogan wields executive powers despite holding a constitutionally symbolic presidency.

“We have no desire other than being the leader of the solution, not part of the problem; to light the way for peace and order, not be the architect of chaos,” Bahceli said.

Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Heinrich