ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday began campaigning for constitutional reforms that would greatly expand the powers of his office, only hours after a vote in parliament cleared the way for a national referendum on the issue.
Speaking in Istanbul, he hailed the assembly's early-morning decision saying a more powerful presidency will catapult Turkey to a position of strength. "God willing the people will give the true decision, the final decision," Erdogan said.
After an all-night session capping almost two weeks of acrimonious debate, Turkish lawmakers passed the controversial set of 18 articles. The measures still need to be approved in a national plebiscite slated for April. The bill would abolish the role of the prime minister and introduce a presidential system that critics fear lacks effective checks and balances.
A change to the presidential system would be a crowning achievement for Erdogan, who has outmaneuvered and crushed all his major foes.
The reforms would potentially allow him to remain in power until 2029.
The bill envisions granting the office of the presidency — currently a largely ceremonial position — the power to appoint government ministers and senior officials, dissolve parliament, declare states of emergency, issue decrees and appoint half of the members in the country's highest judicial body.
Bickering and brawling cast a pall over the two-round voting process, with one opposition legislator handcuffing herself to the rostrum in protest to the package. Many AKP legislators voted in breach of the secret ballot protocol by showing their "yes" votes — a move the opposition said placed pressure on others to do the same. The deliberations, which were not televised, dragged on late into the night.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the opposition Republican People's Party, vowed to lead a "struggle for democracy" to have the reforms rejected in the national vote.
"The Turkish people will spoil this game being played in parliament, I believe this with all my heart," he said.
Lawmakers of the pro-Kurdish and liberal People's Democratic Party, or HDP, argued freedoms were being rolled back in the name of stability at a time when a divided nation needs more, not less democracy.
"If this presidential system passes, the state of chaos, crisis, instability, clashes, polarization we've experienced in the past 1½ to 2 years will become institutionalized and made permanent," Hisar Ozsoy of the HDP said in a motion to dismiss the bill. The HDP also demanded that their leaders and representatives jailed on "terrorism-related" charges be allowed to cast votes — a request that was ignored.
"Taking into account rising terror attacks in Turkey by (the Islamic State group) and Kurdish militants, in a potential referendum, Erdogan's winning recipe will be to cast himself as the strong man, right-wing leader able to deliver security to the Turks through the office of his newly created executive-style presidency," said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Soguel reported from Basel, Switzerland. Cinar Kiper in Istanbul also contributed.