People to elect Turkish leader

Turkey's parliament has approved a key constitutional amendment to allow voters to choose the president.

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VIDEO: Turkey votes for change

The Islamic-rooted government and secularists in the opposition have wrangled over the post for nearly two weeks.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed for the changes after opposition legislators boycotted two parliamentary votes on his party's nominee, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

MPs say they fear a president from the governing Islamic-rooted party would undermine Turkey's strongly treasured secularism and increase the influence of Islam.

Mr Gul then dropped his bid, citing a political deadlock.

Parliament formally abandoned the presidential voting process and MPs began discussing a constitutional amendment that would put the vote to the people.

But the government has still one hurdle to overcome: a possible veto by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

He already indicated his opposition to the measures, saying the time is not right because of political tensions in Turkey.

EU membership at stake

The division over the issue of religion in politics comes at a sensitive time for predominantly Muslim Turkey, which is working toward European Union membership and faces questions in Europe over whether the nation of 70 million can conform to EU values.

Mr Erdogan's government has done more than many other governments to advance Turkey's EU membership bid, and rejects claims that it has an Islamist agenda.

But secularists fear that if Mr Gul becomes president – an office viewed as the protector of national unity – the Islamic-rooted party could challenge the country's secular system unchecked.

Mr Sezer, a staunch secularist, had acted as a brake on the government by vetoing numerous bills and blocking the appointment of hundreds of officials.

Today, legislators from Mr Erdogan's party, backed by members of a small opposition party, voted 376-1 in favour of the constitutional amendments.

"The current situation, as you know, had brought a deadlock," Mr Erdogan told reporters after the vote.

"With these changes, the people will overcome the deadlock."

The measures also call for reducing the presidential term to five years from seven and allowing the president to run for a second term, holding general elections for every four years instead of five, and reducing the number of MPs needed to reach quorum.

Veto could be overcome

Mr Erdogan said if Mr Sezer vetoes it, the government will send the measure back to Parliament for reapproval.

If approved a second time, the president would be forced to either endorse it or call for a referendum on the issue.

It was not clear, however, if Parliament could re-approve the legislation in time for Turkey to hold for general and presidential elections on the same day.

The government declared early elections on July 22 in the midst of the political deadlock, and opposition parties have begun seeking mergers and alliances to try wrest seats from Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party.

Mr Sezer's term was to have ended on May 16 but he will remain president until his successor is elected.

Turkey also faces European concerns about its treatment of minorities and EU calls for wider representation in Parliament.

Earlier today, Parliament approved a measure that would make it harder for pro-Kurdish parties to organise politically by fielding its candidates as independents in general elections.

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