Turkey enacts constitutional reforms to smooth entry into EU

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The Independent Online

Turkey completed its biggest legislative overhaul in two decades yesterday when parliament approved a package of 34 amendments to the constitution designed to pave the way for membership of the European Union.

The amendments, ranging from easing restrictions on using the Kurdish language to making it harder to ban political parties, are the first big shake-up of Turkey's constitution since it was drafted after a military coup in 1980.

But the package fell short of EU hopes in at least one key area: the death penalty. Capital punishment was retained, though its use was restricted to cases of "terrorism", and in times of war or threat of war.

Three amendments failed to win the necessary three-fifths majority and were dropped.

Parliament rejected a proposal to restrict the circumstances under which people can be banned from politics, a move that could have a direct impact on the political ambitions of the popular former Islamist mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The change would have meant that only those convicted of involvement in "terrorist activities" could be banned from politics, a much clearer wording than the current "ideological and anarchic activities".

Mr Erdogan returned to politics this summer as head of the new Justice and Development Party (AK) after serving a jail sentence for inciting hatred in 1999. He now presents himself as a right-wing conservative instead of an Islamist and has said he intends to be the next prime minister. An election is due by 2004 at the latest.

Another rejected amendment would have accelerated procedures for lifting immunity from prosecution from members of parliament and introduced a secret ballot in parliament for votes to do so.

The EU made Turkey a candidate in 1999 but has said it cannot start membership talks until Turkey carries out political and economic reforms, particularly in human rights.

Among changes the Union will welcome are measures to reduce maximum detention periods for suspects before they are charged, and to reshape the powerful National Security Council to give more weight to civilian politicians in a body currently dominated by the military.

EU diplomats have welcomed the package as a major step in the right direction. "They've made more progress in the last two weeks than in the last year," said one EU diplomat. (Reuters)