Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Istanbul - A deputy to Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called on Monday for Turkey to move to a presidential form of government, heralding widely expected proposals for constitutional changes that would allow Erdogan to become even more powerful as president. Since his Islamist-rooted AK Party swept to power in 2001, Erdogan has dominated the political landscape, delivering rapid economic growth, trouncing the opposition in three elections, while passing reforms to bring a staunchly secular military to heel.

Under party rules, however, Erdogan cannot have another term as prime minister, and before the last election it became an open secret in the media that he would like to switch to the presidency before his term ends in 2015.

Opponents fear Erdogan's domineering style would become even more pronounced if he had presidential powers without a parliament strong enough to rein him in.

The judiciary's independence was reduced by reforms pushed through two years ago, and press freedom has also suffered under Erdogan, critics say.

Since last year's election, the potential switch to a presidential form of government had lain dormant, but at a parliamentary symposium on Monday, just a week after parliament began working on a new constitution, Bekir Bozdag, one of Erdogan's four deputy prime ministers, put the issue squarely on the agenda.

“The system which enables the most effect supervision is the presidential system,” Bozdag said in a speech criticising Turkey's current parliamentary system.

“There must be discussion of the presidential system in which the legislative and executive are in a real sense independent of one another,” Bozdag said.

Erdogan appeared to give support to Bozdag's comments when asked about them at a news conference in Slovenia.

“This could be a presidential system, it could be a semi-presidential system. These can all be discussed,” Erdogan said.

At the opening of parliament last October, President Abdullah Gul urged lawmakers to search for consensus on a new liberal constitution so it would be representative.

Erdogan's AK Party won a third consecutive term in June last year and had set a target of drafting a new constitution within the first half of this year.

Party rules prevent Erdogan from serving as prime minister for more than three terms, but there has long been speculation that he intended to switch to an empowered presidency in order to extend his rule.

Erdogan, 58, was dogged by rumours that he was suffering from cancer after undergoing surgery late last year, but he has since resumed overseas trips and has appeared fit and well.

Other crucial issues to be debated for a new constitution are the status of Turkey's minority ethnic Kurds and the relationship between religion and the state in the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The Republican People's Party (CHP), the largest opposition group, has accused the AK Party in the past of seeking to undermine Turkey's secular founding principles.

The AK Party, a socially conservative but economically liberal party with roots in political Islam, has denied this.

Any constitutional reform would probably need to be approved by a referendum. Blessed with a simple majority in parliament, the AKP can pass other laws easily, but it lacks the numbers to make changes to the charter. - Reuters