ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's parliament on Wednesday embarked on a second round of voting on a contentious package of constitutional amendments that would give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office new executive powers.
Legislators are set to vote separately on 18 proposed amendments before holding a final vote on the whole package by the end of the week.
Debate on the draft amendments that would turn Turkey's parliamentary system into a presidential system has been tense, resulting in brawls last week between ruling and opposition party lawmakers.
Founded by Erdogan, the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, argues that a strong presidency is needed to strengthen Turkey as it confronts multiple terrorism threats. Critics say the changes would concentrate too much power in Erdogan's hands and erode checks and balances on his rule.
Erdogan, whom critics accuse of authoritarian tendencies, has long pushed for a presidential system. He says a strong head of state would propel Turkey toward its goal of becoming a world power by 2023, when the Turkish Republic marks its centenary. Currently, the presidency is largely ceremonial.
The New York-based advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, urged Turkish lawmakers to reject the proposed amendments. It said the proposals would render permanent many of the emergency powers the president assumed in the wake of a failed July coup to overthrow him.
The botched July 15 coup set the stage for a sweeping purge of state institutions that has alarmed rights groups and Western governments.
"Parliament should reject these constitutional changes, which would hollow out the rule of law, and profoundly undermine the country's democracy," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW.
Erdogan renewed his support for the changes on Wednesday. Switching to a presidential system and abolishing the office of the prime minister would avert possible power struggles between the premier and the president, he said. Both Turkey's prime minister and president are popularly elected. Erdogan became the country's first directly elected president in 2014,
If the reform bill secures at least 330 votes in the 550-seat assembly, it would then be put to a national referendum.
The reforms, which have support from the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, have garnered sufficient votes in the first round of voting last week.
The main opposition Republican People's Party vehemently opposes the amendments. Its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, met Wednesday with his nationalist party counterpart to "convey his concerns."
When deliberations started hours later, Muharrem Erkek of the Republican People's Party warned that Erdogan would be "the only person who enjoys freedoms," if the reforms are adopted.
Members of his party stood up in unison at 6 p.m., part of a wider protest campaign that called on Turkish citizens to "stand up" to the proposed presidential system at designated times over three days.
Lawmakers of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, whose leaders are behind bars on terror-related charges, pushed for their jailed representatives to be allowed to vote.
Separately, the Ankara prosecutor's office launched an investigation of a complaint filed by a lawmaker from Erdogan's party. AKP legislator Muhammet Balta has alleged someone bit his leg during a skirmish at the assembly last week, the private Dogan news agency reported.
The debate coincides with tough times for Turkey, which has suffered a wave of bombings, the Jan. 1 shooting attack on an Istanbul nightclub, renewed conflict with Kurdish rebels in the southeast, a military offensive in Syria and the coup attempt.
Associated Press writers Neyran Elden in Istanbul and Dominique Soguel in Basel, Switzerland contributed.