ANKARA (AFP) – In a stormy session marred by fistfights, Turkish lawmakers Monday again voted for a constitutional amendment for the president to be elected by popular vote, overriding the current head of state’s objections.
The defining second round of voting is scheduled for Thursday.
The key provision of the reform package, which calls for a two-round popular vote to elect the president, was supported by 367 deputies at the first reading in the 550-member parliament.
It was exactly the two-third majority required for constitutional changes to be enacted without a referendum.
The other provisions in the seven-article bill, pushed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) which dominates parliament, also got majority support.
The AKP rushed the reforms through parliament earlier this month after twice failing to get its presidential candidate elected by the assembly, as the current law requires, in the face of strong secularist opposition.
But President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who has often clashed with the government, returned the reform package to parliament Friday, saying there was “no justifiable and acceptable reason” to change the election system.
He warned that the haste with which the reforms were introduced would lead to “a deviation from the parliamentary system” and “create far-reaching, irreparable problems.”
The AKP said it would not back down.
If the bill is voted again without changes on Thursday, Sezer must either approve the measure or submit it to a referendum.
The AKP maintains the popular vote is the solution to a political crisis that erupted last month and forced the sole presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, to withdraw.
The prospect of the AKP, the moderate offshoot of a now-banned Islamist movement, providing the president alarmed secularists, who accuse the ruling party of seeking to increase Islam’s role in politics and daily life.
The AKP-majority parliament was virtually certain to elect Gul, but the opposition boycotted two presidential votes on April 27 and May 6, denying the house the quorum for a valid ballot.
Lingering tensions turned ugly in the assembly Monday after an independent deputy accused Sezer of harbouring “hatred” against Erdogan.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) protested that the president was insulted and the row soon grew into an exchange of punches and kicks between several CHP and AKP deputies, prompting a break in the debate.
The reforms also call for a once-renewable five-year presidential mandate instead of the current single, seven-year term and set general elections every four years instead of five.
The main opposition accused the AKP of acting with “a sense of vengeance” for having failed to secure Gul’s election at the expense of creating a “degenerated parliamentary system.”
“Let us not drag the country into fresh chaos,” CHP deputy Mehmet Ziya Yergok said.
The presidential election turmoil, exacerbated by a stiff warning from the military that it is ready to act to defend the secular system, forced Erdogan to bring general elections forward from November 4 to July 22.
Recent public opinion surveys show that after four-and-a-half years in power, the AKP is still Turkey’s most popular party, leading its opposition rivals by a wide margin.
The AKP has disowned its Islamist roots, pledged commitment to secularism and carried out reforms that stabilised the economy and secured the opening of membership talks with the European Union.
But its opponents say it still harbours Islamist ambitions, pointing to AKP opposition to a headscarf ban in universities and public offices, its encouragement of religious schools and a failed attempt to restrict alcohol sales.
Sezer’s seven-year term officially ended on May 16.