ANKARA Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took a step towards extending his powers on Tuesday after his ruling AK Party presented a proposal to parliament for setting up a presidential system.
Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics since the party came to power in 2002, is widely viewed as wanting to consolidate his position by becoming the head of state in a presidential election in 2014.
The plan drew criticism from the opposition, however, with one politician saying it could lead Turkey into a "dark dictatorship".
Under the current system, the president is a largely ceremonial figure. The AK Party aims to create an executive presidency within the framework of a new constitution which the government says will advance Turkey's democratisation.
Erdogan's plans will be challenged by other parties in parliament who fear such a reform will hand him too much power. However, the AK Party has a large majority in parliament which leaves it strongly positioned to push through reform.
"We presented a measure to the parliamentary speaker's office. Within that there is an AK Party proposal on the formation of a presidential system," Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, a leading advocate of the reform, said.
"We think it is right to move Turkey to a presidential system which can establish strong leadership and create stability rather than disputes in the years ahead," he said.
The move coincided with an announcement from Erdogan that local elections would go ahead in March 2014 as scheduled. He abandoned an attempt to bring the vote forward by five months after failing to win enough parliamentary support for the plan.
An earlier date for local elections would have given him more time to prepare for the presidential contest in 2014.
Under the AKP proposal, the president would appoint ministers, who would not be members of parliament and there would no longer be parliamentary mechanisms such as confidence votes and censure motions, Bozdag said.
The proposal, presented to parliament on Monday evening, was expected to be sent to an all-party parliamentary commission formed after last year's election to work on a new charter.
Opposition parties were fierce in their criticism.
"Turkey would walk into a dark dictatorship," said Riza Turmen, a deputy from the opposition Republican People's Party.
"Turkey is already on this path. The parliament is unable to fulfil its duties even in a parliamentary system. The judiciary is not independent, the press is not free," he told Reuters.
The nationalist MHP also rejected a move to a presidential set-up, calling for a strengthening of the parliamentary system.
ERDOGAN "LOSING HOPE" ON CONSENSUS
The AK Party has yet to spell out exactly what its reform plans are but Erdogan is expected to seek the presidency in the 2014 vote as under party rules he cannot run for prime minister again when his term ends in 2015.
He was reported as saying last Friday that he was losing hope of building cross-party support for the constitutional reforms but that he was determined to push the plans forward.
His Islamist-rooted party, which trounced the opposition in three parliamentary elections, has transformed Turkey during its decade in government, creating unprecedented prosperity and bringing a staunchly secular military to heel.
At his party congress in September, Erdogan said he would forge a constitution that would boost political freedom and democracy to replace one drawn up after a military coup three decades ago.
He invited opposition parties for consultations but opponents fear the new system would hand too much power to a man whose intolerance of dissent is viewed with increasing concern in Turkey and abroad.
Hundreds of activists, lawyers, politicians, military officers and journalists are being held on charges of plotting against the government or supporting outlawed Kurdish militants.
One obstacle to Erdogan's presidential ambitions could be the current president himself.
A survey by Turkish pollster MetroPOLL in September showed Turks would prefer incumbent Abdullah Gul as their next president.
The two men, who co-founded the AK Party in 2001 but could in theory face each other in the presidential election, have had increasingly public differences.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Angus MacSwan)