ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s ruling AK Party and the main opposition agreed on Wednesday to revive efforts to forge a new constitution, a move President Tayyip Erdogan hopes will hand him sweeping powers, but deep divisions mean progress is likely to be halting.
The AKP has put a new constitution at the heart of its agenda after winning back a majority in a November parliamentary election. Erdogan wants the change to consolidate power in the hands of the presidency by turning the previously ceremonial office into that of a chief executive.
Western allies, which need Turkey as a stable partner in the fight against Islamic State and in efforts to resolve Europe’s migration crisis, support the idea of a constitution that bolsters Turkish rights and democracy but fear an executive presidency could strengthen Erdogan’s authoritarian instincts.
Turkish opposition parties agree on the need to replace the current constitution, born of a 1980 coup and still bearing the stamp of its military authors, but do not back the presidential system envisaged by Erdogan for the EU candidate nation.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), agreed after a 2-1/2 hour meeting in Ankara to revive a cross-party commission to work on a new text.
“Turkey must rescue itself from the coup constitution,” CHP spokesman Haluk Koc told a news conference, making clear that his party would continue to back changes such as moves toward EU-backed reforms.
“(But) we are standing our ground regarding the presidential system, and they are probably guarding their position as well. There was no detailed discussion on this,” he said of Kilicdaroglu’s meeting with the prime minister.
Davutoglu is due to meet the leader of the nationalist MHP opposition next week to try to win his backing for a new constitution, but has canceled a planned meeting with the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) after it joined a call for Kurdish self-rule.
“Turkey’s biggest problem is the Kurdish issue, so without talking about the Kurdish issue, how will they make a new constitution,” HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas told a news conference in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.
“A constitution without the HDP can’t create social reconciliation. It won’t be any different from a coup constitution,” he said, adding the party was awaiting a new appointment date with the AKP.
Despite several amendments, Turkey’s constitution is seen by critics as discriminating against Kurdish and other minorities, as well as propping up out-dated electoral and judicial laws.
A similar cross-party panel tried for two years to reconcile its differences on some of the most deeply divisive issues in modern Turkey. It agreed some 60 article changes, but gave up in late 2013 after running into insurmountable disagreements on issues ranging from the definition of citizenship to the protection of religious freedoms.
“Unfortunately, we’re not expecting the formation of a new constitution. These efforts are futile in an environment with such strict red lines,” said one senior government official.
The AKP holds 317 of 550 seats in parliament, but would need 330 votes to take a new constitution to a referendum, meaning it is dependent on winning at least some opposition support.
Those close to Erdogan say an executive presidency, a Turkish take on the system in the United States, France or Russia, would give Turkey the firm hand it needs to prosper and eliminate tensions between the president and prime minister.
“We have laid out our presidential system plan to the CHP. We want to discuss our suggestion and CHP’s new suggestions regarding the parliamentary system together,” AKP spokesman Omer Celik told a separate news conference in Ankara.
He made clear there was little room to give ground on Kurdish demands for greater autonomy, after Demirtas took part in a two-day congress of Kurdish groups last weekend that called for more self-governance.
“We do not foresee local parliamentarian or federal or autonomous structures in our plans for the constitution, there is no such need,” Celik said.
The gulf between the government and Kurdish opposition has widened in recent months. Erdogan said on Tuesday Demirtas’ calls for greater self-governance were a “clear provocation” and that his party would be “taught a lesson”.
Violence in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast has flared up since the collapse of a ceasefire in July. The military says more than 210 Kurdish militants have been killed in the last two weeks, during which fighting has intensified.
Additional reporting by Melih Aslan in Istanbul, Gulsen Solaker and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; writing by Jonny Hogg and Nick Tattersall; editing by Philippa Fletcher