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Europe

Constitutional Changes Lead to Scuffle in Turkish Parliament

A fistfight broke out among Turkish lawmakers at a parliamentary debate Monday over constitutional changes rejected last week by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer that would see his successor elected by popular vote.

Turkish legislators held a passionate debate over presidential politics Monday

About a dozen representatives were involved in the scuffle that lasted several minutes on the parliamentary floor Monday after a legislator made statements highly critical of the president. The debate over changes to the constitution was able to continue after a short break.

The governing Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which twice failed to get its presidential candidate elected in parliament this month in the face of strong secularist opposition, is pushing for changes to be made to the presidential election process.

The staunchly secular Sezer, who has often clashed with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sent the bill back to parliament Friday, saying the amendments were adopted hastily and without sufficient debate.

There was "no justifiable and acceptable reason or necessity" to introduce a two-round popular presidential vote, said Sezer, a former head of the Constitutional Court.

AKP promises to resubmit changes

Pro-secular demonstrators took to the streets to protest again over the weekend

Sezer said the bill would lead to "a deviation from the parliamentary system" and "create far-reaching, irreparable problems."

But defying the president, the AKP responded by saying it would push the bill through parliament for a second time -- and without changes. Under Turkish law, constitutional amendments are voted in two readings, at least 48 hours apart. The second round of voting was expected on Thursday.

The bill also calls for a once-renewable five-year presidential mandate instead of the current single, seven-year term and sets general elections every four years instead of every five years.

Should the amendments pass through parliament a second time, Sezer will not be able to veto them again, though he can submit them to a public referendum.

Secularists remain alarmed

Gul, right, was Erdogan's choice for president

The AKP says the amendments are the solution to a political crisis sparked by the recent presidential election in which the sole candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, was forced to withdraw.

The opposition boycotted the presidential vote twice, denying the house the quorum required to make the ballot valid. Gul was virtually certain to be elected in the later stages of the election in the AKP-dominated parliament.

The prospect of the AKP, the moderate offshoot of a now-banned Islamist movement, electing one of its own to the presidency alarmed secularists, who accuse the government of seeking to increase the role of Islam in politics and public life.

The turmoil, exacerbated by a stiff warning from the military that it stands ready to defend the secular order, forced Erdogan to bring legislative elections forward from Nov. 4 to July 22.

AKP leading polls

European Union observers are keeping a close eye on the Turkish electoral process

Recent public opinion surveys show that after four and a half years in power, the AKP is still Turkey's most popular party, leading its rivals in the badly fractured opposition by a wide margin.

The AKP has disowned its Islamist roots, pledged commitment to secularism and carried out reforms that stabilized the economy and secured the opening of membership talks with the European Union.

But its opponents say it still harbors Islamist ambitions, pointing at AKP opposition to a headscarf ban in universities and public offices, its encouragement of religious schools and a failed attempt to restrict alcohol sales.

Sezer's seven-year term expired on May 16 and he is currently serving as acting head of state.

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