Turkish lawmakers Monday debated sweeping constitutional reforms that would see the president elected by popular vote, as they sought a way out of a damaging crisis concerning Turkey's secular fabric.
The session got off to a heated debate between members of the ruling party and the main opposition over the timing of the proposal, which calls for a two-round popular vote to elect the head of state, who is currently chosen by parliament.
The opposition argued that with early general elections already scheduled for July 22, the time was not ripe for parliament to make radical changes to the presidential selection system.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is confident that it can push the reforms through parliament thanks to the backing of a small center-right party, which will provide enough votes to secure the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution.
The reform package would also modify the presidency to run for a once-renewable, five-year mandate instead of the current single, seven-year term, and calls for holding general elections every four years instead of the current five.
Monday's debate came a day after parliament failed, for a second time, to elect a president, with an opposition boycott preventing parliament reaching the required quorum for a vote.
Foreign minister Abdullah Gul, a former Islamist who was the sole candidate for the presidency, subsequently withdrew his name.
The prospect of Gul as president had triggered mass secular protests and a tense standoff between the Islamist-rooted government and the army, which threatened to intervene to protect Turkey's secular regime.
Legal experts have warned that the AKP's push for constitutional amendments could create problems in the functioning of the state, and the influential businessmen's association TUSIAD also cautioned against the changes Monday.
"The parliamentary system in our country is the result of an historical process. Attempting to change the essence of this system will open the way for uncertainty in our political system," it said in a statement.
Opposition parties are now arguing that early legislative elections should be brought forward to June 24, but electoral authorities have already said that July 22 is the earliest possible date on which they can organize a vote.
Blocked from getting its presidential candidate elected in parliament, the ruling party is now hoping to succeed with a popular vote.
The AKP has said that it would like the first round of a popular presidential vote to be held simultaneously with the legislative elections July 22, but conceded Monday that it may be difficult to arrange.
"There are some difficulties in putting out two ballot boxes July 22," AKP parliamentary group chairman Salih Kapusuz told the Anatolia news agency. "The attitude of the president [on the amendments] will be very important," he said.
If adopted in parliament, the amendments will be sent to outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer for approval.
Sezer has 15 days to approve or reject a law. If he rejects the constitutional amendments, parliament will have to debate them again.