Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Monday, 19 April 2010 15:22 UK

Turkey opens debate on reform of constitution

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Mr Erdogan says new laws are too often blocked by the courts

Parliament in Turkey has begun debating changes to the constitution that would shift powers away from the highly secular judiciary and army.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the changes would improve democracy and help put Turkey on the path to European Union membership.

But the nationalist opposition is against reforms it says would threaten the independence of the courts.

Parties have banned MPs from leaving Ankara during the two-week debate.

The reforms, if approved, would change the way judges are appointed to the highest courts, make it harder to ban political parties, and make Turkey's military answerable to civilian courts.

The governing AK Party was itself nearly shut down by the Constitutional Court two years ago.

Critics accuse the party of having an Islamist agenda, and of wanting to take powers away from the secularist establishment, with which it has clashed frequently.

The current constitution was brought in after the 1980 military coup.

On Sunday, Mr Erdogan complained that government initiatives were frequently blocked by the courts, adding that his party wanted "to eradicate the imbalance between those who are elected and those who are appointed".

The prime minister also said that he favoured a presidential system for Turkey and that it could be brought in with the other reforms.

If the proposals gain parliamentary support, they are likely to be put to the Turkish people in a referendum later this year.

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