ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's parliament has given initial approval to a constitutional amendment bringing local elections forward by six months, a move seen as giving Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan more time to prepare for an expected presidential bid.
The amendment was approved late on Friday by 360 votes, just short of the two-thirds majority needed for it to pass without a second reading. It will be put to a referendum in 60 days if President Abdullah Gul does not return it for a second debate.
The polls to elect local mayors and heads of municipalities were originally scheduled for March 2014 and are the first in an electoral cycle which includes a presidential election a few months later and general elections in 2015.
It is an open secret that Erdogan wants to bid for a newly constituted executive presidency that will replace the current largely ceremonial post. Analysts and diplomats say he wants to avoid the local elections becoming a referendum on his rule.
Erdogan's opponents fear the replacement of the current parliamentary system, the probable outcome of a constitutional review now in progress, would allot too much power to a man they already view with suspicion for his authoritarianism.
Hundreds of politicians, academics and journalists are in jail on charges of alleged plots against the government, while more than 300 army officers were handed long jail terms last month for conspiring to topple Erdogan almost a decade ago.
Having overseen a decade of unprecedented prosperity in Turkey, Erdogan is highly popular with the country's new conservative-minded middle class. But a poll published last month said more Turks would prefer to see Gul serve a second term than have Erdogan as their president.
The date of local elections will be October 27, 2013, if a referendum or second debate approves the amendment.
(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Alison Williams)