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Turkey reform article rejected in blow to govt

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s parliament rejected on Monday a constitutional amendment to make it harder to ban political parties, in a surprise blow to the government’s plans to reform a charter written during military rule in the 1980s.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he would press on with the reforms, regardless of a setback that showed the package failed to gain full backing within his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, otherwise called the AK Party.

“We will continue on our path. Withdrawing the constitutional draft is not on the agenda,” Erdogan said after parliament rejected the amendment in a second round of voting.

The AK Party, which has roots in political Islam but denies ambitions to create an Islamic state, says the reforms are needed to bring Turkey closer to EU democratic norms.

The secularist opposition has accused the government of using judiciary reform as an excuse to install its supporters in the Constitutional Court, the ultimate guarantor of Turkey’s secular constitution, and undermine secular principles.

The package also calls for making the secular army accountable to civilian courts.

Erdogan has said he will call a referendum if he fails to secure the necessary number of votes for the reform package.

Each of the 30 amendments require 367 votes out of 550 in the AK Party-controlled parliament to become law. The government can call a national referendum if it wins at least 330 votes.

Any amendment that receives fewer than 330 votes is dropped from the package. The proposal to change the political parties law, one of the key provisions in the package, won 327 votes.

“This was one of the most important articles of the constitutional reform package, so it looks like a failure for Erdogan and company,” Wolfango Piccoli, from Eurasia political risk consultancy said.

“In the short term, this could lower tensions but we still need to see how the other controversial articles are voted.”

The AK Party has 335 seats, meaning some of its MPs broke with party discipline and voted against the reform.

Analyst Cengiz Aktar said nationalist MPs could have voted against it because the existing law had often been used in the past as a tool to ban pro-Kurdish parties.

“This shows Turkey needs an entire new constitution, not only amendments,” he said. “Even some members of the AK Party have voted against the article on the grounds of their own interests.”

EU CRITICISED PARTIES LAW

The EU has criticised Turkey’s political parties law, under which almost 20 parties have been banned since the constitution was adopted in 1982 following a coup.

The ruling AK Party itself narrowly survived a court attempt to close it down on the grounds that it contravened the country’s secular constitution.

Erdogan has been personally lobbying AK Party MPs to support the package and canceled a planned Turkey-Italy summit in Rome last month to make sure all the articles won support.

Some deputies were themselves surprised.

“We didn’t expect this to happen. We are sorry and surprised. Eight to nine of our party MPs voted against the article,” said Nurettin Canikli, an AK Party MP.

“This shows the party does not force its MPs to vote in favor of the proposed reforms.”

Parliament is set this week to vote on two other contentious proposals: the reform of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors and the Constitutional Court, both of which are strongholds of the secularist establishment.

The main opposition party has said it would appeal to the country’s top court to annul the amendments.

Reporting by Pinar Aydinli; additional reporting by Tulay Karakdeniz; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Maria Golovnina

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