Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday rubber-stamped controversial constitutional changes that will boost his powers, paving the way for a referendum on the legislation in April.
The government says the proposals to create an executive presidency will simplify the government structure, but opponents fear they will lead to one-man rule in Turkey.
“Turkey has reached a major crossroads to change its governance system,” Erdogan said in a speech on Friday.
“God willing, my beloved people are going to the ballot box on April 16.”
Parliament in January approved a new 18-article constitution to create an executive presidency in the NATO member state along the lines of the system in France and the United States.
Brawls erupted between lawmakers during debates over the bill, highlighting the divisive nature of the changes, the most far-reaching constitutional shift since the creation of modern Turkey in 1923.
Erdogan is seen by critics as increasingly autocratic after 14 years in power as both prime minister and president.
And Western allies have been alarmed that a massive crackdown on the media and suspects linked to last year’s failed military coup signals a shift towards authoritarianism.
But his supporters say the changes are necessary for effective government and to avoid fragile and unstable coalitions that were a feature of Turkey’s political scene in the past.
Erdogan approved the legislation six months after the failed July coup in which a rogue military faction attempted to oust him from power.
Under the new constitution, the president will have strengthened executive powers to directly appoint top public officials including ministers.
The post of prime minister, currently held by Erdogan loyalist Binali Yildirim, would be replaced with one or more vice presidents.
The bill also calls for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held at the same time, with the draft giving November 3, 2019 as the date of the next ballot.
– ‘Unpredictable adventure’ –
The referendum campaign is due to formally kick off on February 25, according to media reports.
In a campaign-style address to a large crowd in a town in central Turkey, Erdogan called for Turks to vote for a “Turkish-style” executive presidency, saying the changes would open the way for “speedy decisions” and remove the possibility of conflict between a president and prime minister.
But the main opposition has accused Erdogan of trying to decapitate parliament.
“Now we will take power from the parliament and give it to one man,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“Can Turkey be dragged into an unpredictable adventure? Did we found the republic for this?”
The 62-year-old Erdogan, the most powerful Turkish politician since founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, became president in August 2014, in the first ever direct elections for a Turkish head of state.
But there have been suggestions that the clock on his presidency will start from zero from 2019 and the changes could see Erdogan staying in power until 2029.
– ‘No to lawlessness’ –
Since the coup Turkey has embarked on a massive crackdown on supporters of US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who denies government claims that he was behind the attempted putsch.
More than 41,000 people have been arrested over their suspected links to Gulen’s movement, and 100,000 fired or suspended. Many of them are teachers, police, magistrates or journalists.
In the latest wave of post-coup purges, nearly 4,500 more civil servants — including 330 academics — were dismissed according to a decree published this week.
Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets Friday against protesters at Ankara University who were demonstrating against the dismissal of academics.
The protesters shouted “No to lawlessness!”, an AFP journalist reported.
Human rights activists have fiercely criticised the magnitude of the crackdown, saying the measures have gone well beyond alleged coup plotters.
The government says the purges are necessary to clean the state of the “virus” of Gulen’s movement, which encourages its members to work in public services.