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Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a fashion conference in Istanbul, May 3, 2012. — Photo by AP

ANKARA: Heated debate has gripped Turkey over the redrafting of a military-era constitution and a related question — whether Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to cling to power as president.

Parliament has started work to rewrite the 30-year-old national charter to replace a text passed two years after a 1980 military coup, reflecting deep changes in a country now ruled by a moderate government.

Civil society organisations, religious groups and citizens have been asked to contribute to the drafting process of a more liberal document, and the aim is to produce a new constitution before the end of the year.

Prime Minister Erdogan announced on Monday that the writing phase had begun, and said that “we can discuss everything about it — whether it will be a presidential system or a co-presidency.”

For many, his words confirmed what has been Turkey's worst kept secret: that Erdogan intends to replace a parliamentary system with a presidential one — and that he will likely run for the top job in 2014.

Erdogan faces a 2015 term limit after three stints as premier, during which he made Turkey a key regional player and oversaw economic growth that has been the envy of the European Union, which Ankara aspires to join.

Critics say he is planning a blatant power grab in a country where civil liberties have been eroding and where the military, defender of Turkey's secular tradition, has been forced on to the defensive.

Dozens of its members including several senior officers are behind bars, facing charges of plotting to overthrow Erdogan's government.

“We already live in a semi-dictatorship, so now are we going for a constitutional dictatorship?” asked Riza Turmen, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, now deputy leader of the pro-secular Republican People's Party (CHP), the main opposition grouping.

The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, has also put Erdogan on notice: “We are not in favour of a presidential system.”

Nevertheless, the changes could go through, say observers.

“If everything goes as he wishes and he becomes the first president of Turkey, with US- or French-style presidential powers, it could start another debate on the quality of the separation of powers in Turkey,” said Murat Yetkin, editor of the Hurriyet Daily News.

For now, the focus is on rewriting the constitution, which will be the fourth since the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, by a special parliamentary commission.

The aim is to develop a more democratic text than that passed two years after the army toppled a civilian parliament in 1980, a text which gave the army sweeping and repressive powers.

In the new charter, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is calling for greater rights for the 12 to 15 million Kurds living in the country of 73 million.

The CHP, meanwhile, warning against a religious drift, has said it would press for references to the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, so that his secular heritage is maintained.

As different voices compete, “this process can get bogged down at any time,” warned Ibrahim Kaboglu of Istanbul's Marmara University, one of the experts consulted by the commission.

Erdogan has said the new text would “highlight the citizen, not the state” and the project would be completed before the end of the year, after which it would be submitted for a referendum.

The final fate of the new charter — and a possible change to a presidential system — he said, would rest with parliament, a body where Erdogan's Justice and Development Party now enjoys a large majority.