Turkish MPs fight during poll reform debate

ANKARA (AFP) — Lawmakers from Turkey’s main ruling and opposition parties traded blows Monday during a stormy national debate on constitutional changes that would see the president elected by popular vote.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer last week rejected one attempt to introduce the changes which are being pushed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Trouble started in the national assembly after independent deputy Ummet Kandogan brandished a newspaper photo of Sezer and Erdogan sitting next to each other at war games last week, reportedly without exchanging a word. Kandogan accused the president of harbouring “hatred” against Erdogan.

Several MPs from the AKP and the main opposition exchanged punches and kicks, the Anatolia news agency reported as the state TRT channel stopped its live broadcast from the assembly. The AKP has twice failed to get its presidential candidate elected in parliament this month in the face of strong secularist opposition.

The staunchly secular Sezer, who has often clashed with the government, sent the bill back to parliament Friday, saying that there was “no justifiable and acceptable reason or necessity” to introduce a two-round popular presidential vote.

Sezer warned that the amendments would lead to “a deviation from the parliamentary system” and “create far-reaching, irreparable problems.” But defying the president, the AKP responded by saying it would rush the bill through parliament for a second time, with no changes. If the amendments are voted again unchanged, Sezer must either approve them or submit them to a referendum.

The AKP says the amendments are the solution to a political crisis sparked by the presidential election in which the sole candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, was forced to withdraw.

The prospect of the AKP, the moderate offshoot of a now-banned Islamist movement, providing the president has alarmed secularists, who accuse the government of seeking to increase Islam’s role in politics and daily life.

Gul was virtually certain to be elected in the AKP dominated house but the opposition boycotted the two presidential votes, denying the house the quorum required to make the ballot valid.

“When the candidates of other parties are elected there is no problem, but when it comes to the AKP… they say the regime is under threat. This is a gross lie,” AKP deputy Ayhan Sefer Ustun said at Monday’s debate, broadcast by TRT.

“Parliament has been blocked and this package will resolve the blockage,” he added.

Under Turkish law, constitutional amendments are voted in two readings at least 48 hours apart. The second round of voting is expected on Thursday.

The bill also calls for a once-renewable five-year presidential mandate instead of the current single, seven-year term and sets general elections every four years instead of five.

The political 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 rivals in the badly fractured opposition 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 at 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. 

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