Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Istanbul, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017. Erdogan started campaigning for constitutional reforms that would greatly expand the powers of his office on Saturday, hours after a vote in parliament cleared the way for a national referendum on the issue. (Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)
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Recep Tayyip Erdogan has begun a final push to increase his power as Turkey’s president — a goal he has sought for years — after the country’s parliament agreed far-reaching constitutional changes that will now be put to referendum.

The proposed changes, which were shepherded through parliament on Friday night in alliance between Turkey’s ruling AKP and a nationalist party, would crown Mr Erdogan’s 14-year rule by boosting his formal role as president and allowing him to remain in post until 2029.

“God willing the people will give the true decision, the final decision,” Mr Erdogan said at an event in Istanbul at the weekend, as he effectively kicked off the campaign for the referendum, which is likely in April. “This referendum period will conclude with the will of our people.”

The changes would give the president the power to control budgets, appoint more top judges and resume leadership of the AKP while scrapping the post of prime minister, the job Mr Erdogan held from 2003 for three terms. If approved, they would take effect in 2019 and also allow him to serve two more terms as president, until the end of the next decade.

Mr Erdogan acknowledges that Turkey has in effect become a presidential system since he became head of state in 2014. But both the president and his opponents say the new constitution would allow him to formalise those changes and increase his powers.

Some analysts also depict his move — at a time when Turkey is fighting terrorist attacks and the economy is under strain — as a gamble that will either personalise his rule further or plunge the already polarised country into deeper disarray.

The country is still coping with the aftermath of a failed coup last year that led Mr Erdogan to declare emergency rule and instigate mass purges of alleged plotters and coup-sympathisers.

“These constitutional amendments, if adopted, will mark the turning point for Turkish democracy,” said Sinan Ulgen at Carnegie Europe, citing the concern that they would diminish checks and balances.

Mr Ulgen also warned that if the referendum on the constitutional changes failed, it could lead to new elections, adding: “Given the seriousness of Turkey’s security and economic challenges, this type of political calendar is certainly going to be a handicap for effective and long-term policymaking.”

The referendum will test Mr Erdogan’s popularity, currently near all-time highs, and is the culmination of nearly a decade of manoeuvring, starting in 2007 when the AKP championed changes that made the presidency a directly elected office.

“This is not something that happened overnight,” said a member of the country’s Kurdish opposition, who asked not to be quoted after a dozen of his colleagues, including the party’s leadership, were jailed in the last few months. “This was always in the back of Mr Erdogan’s mind, and even though it took years, he has almost achieved it.”

In a sign of the tension that may mark the referendum, fist fights broke out in parliament over several days, while a television blackout of the opposition speeches forced one opposing MP to bring his own cameras into parliament, only to have his microphone stolen.

Mr Erdogan argues that he considers the referendum a historic opportunity to free the country of unstable coalition governments — of the sort Turkey had in the 1990s — and remove any constitutional tensions over his current style of government.

Since the failed coup and the introduction of emergency powers, he has ruled the country by decree and 100,000 people accused of backing the coup have been imprisoned.

It is unclear if the president will lift the state of emergency before the poll, scheduled for an unspecified date after April 2, but some of the permanent powers he seek resemble the emergency powers he currently holds.

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