Turkey to consider constitutional changes in March

Turkey to consider constitutional changes in March

Turkey's government is preparing a package of constitutional amendments to go to parliament within 10 days, a minister said on Saturday, a move expected to increase tension with the secularist judiciary, Reuters reported.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government lacks the two-thirds parliamentary majority it needs to change the constitution, so will then hold a referendum to gain public backing which will undercut any Constitutional Court challenge, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said.

Erdogan's AK Party, which has roots in a banned Islamist movement, wants to make it harder to outlaw political parties and reform the way judges and prosecutors are appointed.

"We object to the current structure of the judiciary because it over-extends its powers and creates laws by overstepping the authority of the parliament," Ergin told reporters on Saturday.

The secularist establishment, whose legal challenges against the AK Party have been spearheaded by the Constitutional Court, suspects the government wants to Islamicise the state by stealth and pack the courts with sympathetic judges and prosecutors.

The head of the Constitutional Court has urged Erdogan to seek consensus rather than force through constitutional changes to ease tensions generated by the detentions of a prosecutor and several military officers in the so-called Ergenekon investigation into an alleged coup conspiracy.

The arrests have wobbled financial markets worried about political stability in the $650 billion (428 billion pound) economy.

The government's proposed package consists of "urgent and limited" amendments of 10 to 15 articles including rules to curb the role of the Constitutional Court, Ergin said.

Ergin said the changes include tighter rules on political party bans, but he would not specify if they would help the ruling AK Party avert a new closure case.

There is speculation in the media and among some investors that prosecutors could open another case to outlaw the business-friendly, pro-EU AK Party, which narrowly escaped a ban in 2008 on charges it undermined Turkey's secular constitution.

Banning parties "is obviously a problem in Turkey, which has closed some 25 parties," Ergin said. "That's why we have the new regulations to make party closures more difficult."

Turkish democracy has also been tested by repeated interventions from the military, the self-appointed guardian of the country's secular system.

The army ousted three governments in coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured a fourth, Turkey's first Islamist-led administration to resign in 1997. Erdogan was the outspoken mayor of Istanbul for that Islamist party at the time.

"Turkey needs to consolidate democracy to be less susceptible to military coups," Ergin said.

The Justice Ministry will examine charges of wrongdoing in the Ergenekon investigation and trial, but criticism of the case has come mainly from those named in the indictments or from those with close ties to suspects, Ergin said.

Nearly 200 people, including academics, journalists and army officers, are on trial for allegedly conspiring to topple the government. Opponents have called it a political witch hunt.

The overhaul of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which appoints court officers, is among the most contentious issues in the row with the judiciary, Ergin said.

Five judges from two courts dominate the board, and the government wants to expand it to 21 members, with a third of them appointed by parliament.

Reforming the board is required to meet EU membership rules, Ergin said. Brussels has called on Turkey to make the judges' council more representative and independent.

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