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Turkish Government Sends Constitutional Reform Package to Parliament

Controversial provision would allow trials of top military brass; critics say additional changes are cover for ruling Islamist party's efforts to consolidate power

The Turkish government sent to parliament Tuesday a bitterly disputed constitutional reform package that strikes at the heart of the secular elite.

The government claims their proposal to reform the constitution will democratize the country and meet European Union membership demands.

Turkey's constitution was created by the country's military rulers who had seized power in 1980. Since then it has been a focal point of criticism in the country.

Soli Ozel is a political scientist of Bilgi University. He says many Turks believe in constitutional reform.

"The current constitution was written in 1982 by the military and for the military and it had a major assumption that the Cold War would never end and Turkey could continue with a semi-authority system. And the philosophy in that constitution, which is one of restrictions rather than one of the liberties, which goes against the spirit of the western world in this day and age and is in contrast with both in my judgement, the needs of the country and the mood of the country," said Ozel.

The mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) government's proposals include a 26-item package to change the constitution. It covers a wide variety of issues which challenge the country's nationalist establishment including provisions which fight the discrimination of women, lift a ban on the prosecution of the 1980 military coup leaders and make it harder to outlaw political parties.

But one of the most controversial proposals involves a revised version that would allow the armed forces chief and other top brass in the once untouchable military to be tried in the Supreme Court like cabinet ministers. On Tuesday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned his own supporters in government to tread carefully, saying it is very important that changes be made "in the best way."

Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek says the reforms must move forward.

"Turkey cannot continue with this constitution. These changes have to happen. Our objective with these changes is not to strengthen our government, he says. The aim of these constitutional amendments is to establish people's sovereignty in every field and strengthen the rule of the people," Cicek said.

But critics say that while an overhaul is needed, the changes proposed by the ruling AK Party are a cover for efforts to consolidate its power and promote an Islamist agenda.

They point to one proposal that would increase the number of judges on the constitutional court from 11 to 19 - 16 of which would be appointed by the president and three by the parliament.

Lawyer Riza Turmen represented Turkey for the European Court of Human Rights.

"The government will have full control over the judiciary and the constitutional court and on the higher judiciary council which is key to the independence of the judiciary. In every state there is a separation of powers and the rule of law. [And it is the] judiciary which determines the boundaries of the democratically elected government. Because otherwise the government can act arbitrarily. That is the danger we are now facing in Turkey," Turmen said.

The judiciary, and, in particular, the constitutional court has proven to be a major thorn in the side of the government, overturning several key reforms.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims the judiciary is politicized and usurping the democratic wishes of the people.

As a result, he has been trying to secure cross party support for the package, insisting that the package can only pass in its entirely.

But Hakki Okay of the main opposition People's Republican Party says that is unacceptable.

"We will support some articles, he says. But if the reforms are presented as a package we will oppose it."

Other opposition parties agree, making it unlikely that the government has enough parliamentary votes to secure the required two-thirds majority to get the reforms passed, making a referendum more probable.

Lawmakers are unlikely to vote on the package before mid-April, as the proposals have to go through parliamentary scrutiny before a bill is finalized. Any referendum would probably be held two months later.

The head of the constitutional court, Hasim Kilic, who observers say is sympathetic to the government, warned any reform package should be introduced through consensus, saying otherwise it could end up being referred to his court, which could overturn the reforms. But observers warn that would plunge the country into another major political crisis.