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Turkey split over plans to reform law system

As ruling party tries to change constitution, a row likely to lead to a political crisis has arisen, threatening to paralyse the country.

ISTANBUL // Turkey is facing new political tensions as opposition leaders and members of the judiciary accuse the ruling party of trying to undermine democracy with a set of wide-ranging constitutional changes. The row has erupted over proposals by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, for the most comprehensive overhaul of Turkey's basic law since it was introduced under military rule in 1982. With the plan, unveiled this week, the AKP wants to change almost two dozen provisions in the constitution.

But chances for a political consensus are slim. Observers say a poisonous atmosphere of mistrust and deep divisions between opposing camps in Ankara could result in a new, drawn-out crisis that would consume Turkey for months to come. The first signs of that confrontation have already appeared. Deniz Baykal, the opposition leader in Ankara, said the government was trying to create a constitution that served its own purposes and weaken institutions that stood in its way. "It is like leaving the chicken to the fox," Mr Baykal said in a speech this week. Hasan Gerceker, the president of Turkey's court of appeals, was equally scathing. The government wanted to "gain control over the judiciary", he said. "The changes in connection with the judiciary are against the constitution."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, responded by saying that "certain members of the high judiciary that talk like politicians all the time should first of all respect the division of powers themselves". Most controversial are proposals by the AKP to change the make-up of the constitutional court and of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, or HSYK, a judicial control body that is seen as a bastion of AKP critics. The HSYK annoyed the government last month by firing a prosecutor who had been investigating an alleged coup plot against the ruling party.

The fierce debate about the constitutional amendments marks the latest confrontation between Mr Erdogan's religiously conservative AKP and its secularist opponents in parliament, the military and the judiciary, who accuse Mr Erdogan of following a hidden agenda to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. Ironically, the new tensions have been sparked by an issue that, at least in principle, could see government and opposition working together.

Many experts and politicians on both sides of the aisle agree that the constitution, which was written by the generals and includes many restrictions on democratic rights, has to be reformed or even completely rewritten to reflect Turkey's progress as a democracy. There is even broad support for some of the changes proposed by AKP, including a plan to make it possible for the leaders of the military coup of 1980 to stand trial. Women's rights groups welcomed a proposal designed to pave the way for affirmative action programmes to benefit women.

"We are saying: 'Turkey cannot move forward with this constitution,'" said Cemil Cicek, the deputy prime minister and government spokesman. Mr Cicek said the government would try to find opposition support until the proposals will be officially tabled in parliament next week. He added that the present form of the constitution was hindering Turkey's progress towards membership of the European Union. "Everybody says we need to change the constitution, but nothing is being done about it." In 2008, the AKP dropped plans for a new constitution after coming under fire from critics accusing the party of trying to formulate an Islamic basic law.

But now the AKP's aim to reorganise key judicial institutions and its insistence that the package be ratified as a whole, instead of allowing it to be broken up into individual changes, have rekindled that controversy. Political polarisation in Ankara makes it highly unlikely that a broad consensus over the proposed changes will emerge. "Nobody is sincerely looking for an agreement," Ismet Berkan, the editor of the Radikal newspaper, wrote in a column. Some government critics came out opposing the plans "without reading the proposals" first, he added.

As significant opposition support for the AKP plans is unlikely, the package may be submitted to a referendum before the summer, news reports said. According to Turkish law, a constitutional amendment is subjected to a referendum if it fails to get the 367 votes in parliament needed for a constitutional change by the chamber, but receives more than 330 votes. The AKP has 337 deputies. The prospect of a referendum would heat up the political atmosphere even more, because a vote on the constitutional package would be seen as a vote on the AKP government itself. Turkey would in effect enter into election mode.

Speculation about new efforts to ban the AKP has added to the tensions. Taraf, an independent newspaper, reported last weekend that Turkey's prosecutor general was preparing a new case against the ruling party. Significantly, one of the proposals of Mr Erdogan's party, which came close to being shut down by the constitutional court in 2008, is a plan to make it harder for the judiciary to ban political organisations.

Other AKP plans, revealed after months of strife surrounding investigations against suspected coup-plotters in the armed forces, are designed to strengthen civilian oversight over the military by opening decisions taken by a top military body to judicial review. tseibert@thenational.ae