Turks OK shift to popular vote for president

Lawmakers approve amendment, but it faces veto threat

May 11, 2007|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Parliament approved yesterday a constitutional amendment to elect Turkey's president by a popular vote, giving even greater weight to midsummer elections that are shaping up as a divisive referendum on the role of Islam in government.

The 376-1 vote by lawmakers opens the door to holding presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously, on July 22. However, the package of electoral reforms could still be blocked by a veto from the country's resolutely secular president, with whom the ruling party is at odds.

Under the reform measures, the president for the first time would be elected by a popular vote rather than by parliament, and could serve up to two five-year terms rather than a single seven-year term.

Lawmakers' terms would be shortened from five to four years, and it would be much easier for the majority party to muster a quorum in parliament - an issue that took on outsized importance in recent weeks amid a polarizing struggle over the presidency.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, believes the changes will help solidify its hold on power. The vote represented a victory for the party, which has its roots in political Islam, after an unexpected political battering over the past month.

Turkey is embroiled in a bitter political confrontation that was sparked when the ruling party tried to put forth a candidate to replace outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose seven-year term in the largely ceremonial post was to have ended May 16.

The political opposition, with the aid of the staunchly pro-secular courts and military, managed to block the election of the AKP's candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

Opponents claimed Gul would not respect Turkey's constitutionally mandated separation of religion and state. The foreign minister insisted he would. However, large street protests, threats from the military and a court ruling that hinged on the technical question of what constituted a parliamentary quorum forced him to step aside.

Frustrated, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for early elections, in which his party is expected to keep its majority and perform well. But opposition parties also have begun forming alliances that could strengthen them and force Erdogan's party into a coalition government.

The opposition could still seek to block the reforms approved yesterday. As president, Sezer has veto power, which he could exercise. But lawmakers could override the veto.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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