ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned his own supporters in government to be careful on Tuesday as they sent to parliament a bitterly disputed constitutional reform package that strikes at the heart of the secular elite.
The proposals to overhaul the judiciary, make the military accountable to civilian courts and make it harder to outlaw political parties challenged the country’s nationalist establishment.
The ruling AK party, whose roots lie in political Islam, says the changes are needed to strengthen Turkey’s democracy and support its bid to become a member of the European Union.
But Gul, who was an AK Party member before his election by parliament in 2007, urged the government to tread cautiously.
“What’s important is, constitutions are binding for everyone, and are long-term, top-level documents. It’s very important that these changes be made in the best way. Caution and care should be taken for sure,” he told journalists.
He was commenting on a revised proposal 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.
Stressing that these were draft proposals, Gul also said some appeared unrealistic, singling out a provision that would allow the president to appoint lay citizens to sit on the bench of the Constitutional Court.
The main measures will change the way judges are appointed, make it harder for courts to ban political parties, and allow military officers, including the chief of staff, to be tried in civilian, rather than, military courts.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said he will seek a referendum on the constitutional changes if parliament fails to pass the amendments.
Critics say the AK Party, whose landslide victory in 2002 ended decades of rule by secular, nationalist parties, aims to cement its grip on power ahead of an election due by mid-2011.
The AK Party has a sizable parliamentary majority, but lacks the two-thirds needed to pass constitutional amendments, 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 finalised. Any referendum would probably be held two months later.
“We expect parliament to finish work on the reforms package within April,” said Bekir Bozdag, a senior AK Party lawmaker.
Deniz Baykal, the leader of CHP, the largest opposition party, has warned that he will try to block the bill by asking the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the proposals.
Last week, senior judges spoke out against the planned changes, prompting ministers to accuse them of sounding like opposition politicians.
Opinion polls have shown the government has public backing for changing a charter that was written by a military government in 1982, two years after a coup.
Investors in Turkey are uneasy over the prospect of a full blown political crisis developing, but have largely held their nerve while watching developments unfold.
One of their biggest concerns is that the chief state prosecutor may launch a fresh attempt to ban the AK Party, having tried and failed two years ago.
The prosecutor had accused the party of being a focal point of Islamist activity in violation of Turkey’s secular constitution. In a narrow, split decision the Constitutional Court chose to fine the ruling party rather than ban it.
Under the proposed reforms a parliamentary commission would have to approve any future attempt to ban a party.
Another proposal would enlarge the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which oversees court appointments, from seven to 21, with a third of the board members chosen by parliament.
The government also wants to overhaul the Constitutional Court, with responsibility for appointment of judges passing mainly to the president.
(Additional reporting by Selcuk Gokoluk and Pinar Aydinli, editing by Paul Taylor)