ANKARA (Reuters) - Flush with an election victory, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan demanded constitutional change that he wants to gain sweeping powers, and vowed to “liquidate” Kurdish guerrillas in a defiant speech that gave no quarter to those hoping for conciliation.
Three days after the Islamist-rooted AK Party he founded won back the mandate to govern alone in a surprise landslide, Erdogan used Wednesday’s speech to make clear military action in the largely Kurdish southeast would not end any time soon.
The election victory also puts him closer to his dream of changing Turkey’s constitution to consolidate power in the hands of the presidency, a move his opponents fear would enable an already authoritarian leader to govern unchecked.
Turkey’s dominant political figure, Erdogan served as prime minister for more than a decade before being elected president last year.
He aims to transform the previously ceremonial office into that of a chief executive, a Turkish take on a Russian or U.S.-style presidency. That goal was set back when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June but is again within reach after Sunday’s surprisingly strong comeback in an election rerun.
He said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would consult opposition leaders on rewriting the constitution, and he would back any parliament decision to hold a referendum on changes.
“One of the most important messages of Nov. 1 is that Turkey needs to solve the new constitution issue as soon as possible,” Erdogan said in a speech to hundreds of “muhtars”, local administrators generally loyal to the government.
“I hope that opposition parties will not fail to contribute to the work on this. If they try to block it, they will give account for it at the next election in four years.”
He did not directly refer to presidential powers, but has long made clear those were the changes he seeks.
“The executive presidency is as important as the new constitution for Turkey’s growth,” Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, a long-standing Erdogan advisor, said on Tuesday.
“This is one of the issues on which we will not give up.”
“MAKE LIFE UNBEARABLE”
With an election cycle stretching back almost two years now behind him, many Turks wondered whether Erdogan would tone down his combative leadership style and adopt a less polarizing tone. Wednesday’s speech suggested not.
“For whoever wants to make life unbearable for us, we will make life unbearable for them,” he said, in apparent reference to violence between the security forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in the southeast.
He pledged to continue operations against the PKK until every last insurgent was “liquidated”.
Turkey launched military action against the Kurdish insurgents in July in response to what it said was a surge in attacks on the security forces, leaving a ceasefire in tatters. Hundreds have since died.
Many Turks viewed the crackdown as an attempt to win back nationalist votes, but there has been no sign that the campaign will be eased now that voting is over.
Two soldiers and 15 militants were killed in clashes on Wednesday, the general staff said, a day after the military carried out new air strikes on PKK camps. A 20-year-old man was shot dead in the town of Silvan, where authorities ordered a round-the-clock curfew in three neighborhoods for a second successive day.
Erdogan’s opponents - from liberal secularists suspicious of his Islamist ideals to left-leaning Kurds who blame him for resurgent violence in the southeast - were stunned by the AKP’s strong election victory, which defied forecasts by pollsters and even the party’s own strategists.
While the party fell short of the super-majority it would need to change the constitution unopposed, it won 317 of 550 seats, only 13 short of the number needed to call a referendum on constitutional changes.
Erdogan has cast the outcome as a vote for stability at a time when Turkey is battling PKK militants, fending off a threat from Islamic State in Syria and coping with an influx of more than 2 million refugees, just as economic growth slows.
Those close to Erdogan say a presidential system would give Turkey the firm leadership it needs to prosper and argue that the constitution, born of a 1980 coup and still bearing the stamp of its military authors, badly needs replacing.
Opposition parties agree on the need for a new constitution but do not back the presidential system envisaged by Erdogan.
His spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, rejected suggestions that the proposed change was simply an attempt to grab power.
“The executive presidency is not a question of our president’s personal future. He has already entered the history books. The basic motivation is to make the system in Turkey as effective as possible,” Kalin told a news conference.
Kalin indicated there would also be little change in Turkey’s foreign policy following Sunday’s election, saying an “open-door” policy to refugees from Syria would continue whether or not it received assistance from the European Union.
Turkey is under pressure from the EU, which it aspires to join, to do more to keep refugees on its soil and help stem the biggest migration to Western Europe since World War Two. The EU has proposed financial aid and accelerated membership talks for Turkey in the hope of winning its help.
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall