Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during the 9th Ambassadors Conference at the Presidental Complex in Ankara, on January 9, 2017
Istanbul (AFP) - Turkey's parliament on Monday began debating a controversial new draft constitution aimed at expanding the powers of the presidency under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The new constitution, expected to be put to a referendum by the spring, would replace the basic law drawn up after Turkey's 1980 military coup.
It seeks to establish for the first time a presidential system for ruling the modern republic created from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
Critics have claimed the move is part of a power grab by Erdogan -- Turkey's premier from 2003-2014 and then president -- for one-man rule following a failed coup in July.
But Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) say the presidential system would bring Turkey into line with countries such as France and the United States and is needed for efficient government.
- 'Two captains sink the boat'-
The proposed constitution is expected to lead to the creation of the posts of vice presidents and the abolition of the office of prime minister.
In a late address to the parliament, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, an Erdogan loyalist, said: "There will be no prime minister, yes, no prime minister. We are not crazy for power," in comments applauded loudly by the ruling party lawmakers in the house.
"Two captains sink the boat. There must be one captain," he said.
The debates on the 18-article new constitution began after the draft was agreed by a parliamentary commission. The two readings are expected to last around two weeks.
There were protests from some quarters as parliament began its deliberations.
Selahattin Demirtas, the jailed co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), slammed the debates from behind bars, the private Dogan news agency reported.
He said the arrest of 11 members of the party for alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had stripped them of their chance to challenge the draft constitution and "makes the debate and the vote controversial from the very start".
A rally outside the parliament building in Ankara against the change descended into violence after riot police used tear gas and pepper spray on the demonstrators.
Police also fired water cannons to disperse protesters, pushing back with their shields those who returned to the fray.
- 'Checks on power' -
"We don't want a system where only one man leads," demonstrator Abdullah Sundal told AFPTV. "We will do everything in our power" to stop the draft becoming law, he said.
The AKP needs more than 330 votes -- a three fifths majority -- for the bill to be submitted to a referendum for voters' approval.
However, the November 2015 election left the AKP short of a super majority in parliament and it is relying on the support of the opposition right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the fourth largest in the legislature.
The new constitution is opposed by the biggest opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), whose deputy chairman Bulent Tezcan said it would restore powers "to the palace" taken away from the Ottoman Sultan a century ago.
"There'll be no censure motions, no vote of confidence, no parliamentary inquiries," fellow CHP lawmaker Deniz Baykal warned.
But on Monday, AKP's parliamentary group deputy chairman Mustafa Elitas said he was expecting at least 20 deputies from the opposition CHP to cross the aisle to vote with the government.
If the measure is approved by parliament, a referendum is expected to take place within 60 days, indicating a date in late March or early April.
Pro-government newspapers have predicted a thumping victory for the ruling party although other commentators have been more cautious about the results.
- 'Alarming' -
Under the proposed changes, there would no longer be a formal cabinet but there will be ministers, whom the president will have the power to appoint and fire.
The president would be elected for a five-year term and serve for a maximum of two mandates.
If Erdogan's existing time as president is not counted, it would mean in theory he could stay in office until 2029.
Parliamentary elections would be held every five years -- not four as at present -- and on the same day as presidential polls.
Both elections would be scheduled to take place on November 3, 2019.
Along with a slew of terror attacks, the political uncertainty has been one of the factors pressuring the Turkish lira, which has lost 18 percent in value against the dollar over the last three months.
The currency slumped to a new record low on Monday, a situation LCG senior market analyst Ipek Ozkardeskaya described as "alarming".
And the upcoming constitution referendum "could push the country toward a greater chaos and further weigh on its currency," she warned.