Turkey could hold referendum on stronger presidency in March

Mustafa Sentop, head of constitution commission of the Turkish Parliament, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Ankara, Turkey, June 15, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey may hold a referendum as early as March on constitutional changes to expand the president’s powers, a senior ruling party lawmaker said, a move that would help Tayyip Erdogan acquire the executive presidency he has long sought.

The ruling AK Party over the weekend submitted to parliament a 21-article package of constitutional reform proposals, aiming to hold a referendum on the package by spring.

The constitutional commission is due to discuss the package next week and debate in parliament is likely to follow in January, according to Mustafa Sentop, the head of parliament’s constitutional commission.

“A referendum appears possible by the end of March or early April,” Sentop told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.

Erdogan has turned a largely ceremonial presidency into a powerful platform by drawing on his unrivalled popularity. His opponents say the constitutional proposals could lead toward authoritarian rule in Turkey.

The AKP, founded by Erdogan over a decade ago, wants the backing of the nationalist MHP opposition to see the plan through parliament, as any constitutional change needs the support of at least 330 deputies in the 550-seat assembly to go to a referendum.

The AKP has 316 lawmakers eligible to vote, and the MHP 39.

If passed, the reforms would ensure that presidential, parliamentary and local elections are all held in 2019. The current president and government would continue to work in the present system until then, although the proposal does include the option for early elections.

“There is no such thing as the elections being brought forward. However, this is politics, and Turkey’s and the world’s conditions may change. This is why we put the relevant article in,” Sentop said, referring to a clause that allows for early elections before 2019.

Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan/Mark Heinrich