ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s president vetoed a constitutional amendment on Friday under which the head of state would have been elected directly by the people, a move likely to deepen a standoff between the secular elite and the government.
At present the head of state is elected by parliament, which last month narrowly rejected the Islamist-rooted ruling AK Party’s candidate for the presidency.
President Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s office said the controversial constitutional amendment was vetoed partly because it could weaken the current balance of power within the political system.
“President Ahmet Necdet Sezer did not find the...law appropriate and sent it back to parliament,” the his office said in a statement. The veto had widely been expected.
Turkey’s secular elite, which includes army generals, opposition parties and top judges, fears the AK party could tamper with the strict separation of state and religion in this officially secular, but overwhelming Muslim country.
The proposed reform, backed earlier in May by more than two-thirds of lawmakers in the 550-seat assembly, envisaged Turkey’s president being elected for a five-year term, renewable for a further five years.
Parliament now elects the president for a non-renewable seven-year period.
The AK Party tried to push through the reform in a direct appeal to voters after its candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, failed to secure parliament’s backing to become president.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said before Sezer’s decision that his government would push the planned reform through parliament unchanged a second time if Sezer vetoed the law. This could open the way for a referendum on the subject.
Sezer, a staunch secularist, cannot veto legislation a second time if it is unchanged. He must either approve the law or call a referendum.
Parliament has now postponed the presidential contest until after a July 22 general election. Sezer will stay in office in an interim capacity until his successor can be chosen.
The lira currency weakened slightly on the news.
The AK Party says the constitutional reform aims to make Turkey more democratic. Critics say they have not been properly thought-out and could upset the constitutional balance of power.
The prime minister and cabinet hold most power in Turkey but the president can veto laws once and appoints many key officials. He is also commander in chief of the armed forces.
Erdogan has pledged to trim the powers of the president if the constitutional changes are approved.
Some people fear curbing presidential powers too much would be a dangerously provocative move for the secular elite, which distrusts Erdogan and his party because of their Islamist roots.
“In the parliamentary system, these broad powers envisaged to achieve a balance of power could produce results which are troublesome for the regime...if the president is chosen by the people,” Sezer’s statement said.
Turkey has witnessed huge anti-government rallies over the past month, most recently in the Aegean port city of Izmir where one million, mostly middle-class urban Turks expressed their support for secularism and their distrust of the AK Party.
The military has also waded into the crisis, reminding Turks of its constitutional duty to intervene if required to defend the separation of state and religion.
The AK Party, which has presided over strong economic growth and the launch of European Union entry talks, denies any Islamist agenda.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and Selcuk Gokoluk in Ankara