ANKARA: Turkey's government was pursuing efforts Wednesday to defuse a row over its plans to exert more control over the judiciary, a move that has stoked concerns about the independence of the country's institutions in the wake of a damaging corruption scandal.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing the worst crisis of his 11-year rule, said Tuesday he was ready to freeze the bill in the face of stiff opposition -- but only with conditions.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag was holding talks Wednesday with the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), Turkey's top independent judicial body which has found itself in the government's cross hairs.
Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved to rein in the HSYK after a high-level bribery and corruption probe implicated several of his key allies.
The government also sacked hundreds of police and prosecutors involved in the investigation, which it charges is a "coup plot" by supporters of an influential exiled Turkish cleric who hold key posts in the judiciary and police.
The reforms, notably giving the justice ministry more control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, have been attacked as unconstitutional by both the HSYK and the main opposition.
The crisis has also prompted the European Union and the United States to voice their concerns over the rule of law in Turkey and have called on all institutions to act impartially.
But Erdogan offered a compromise following the intervention of President Abdullah Gul, who is seen as a more conciliatory figure in the crisis convulsing Turkey.
The prime minister, who critics say has become increasingly authoritarian, said he could freeze the legislation if the opposition instead agreed to consider judicial reforms as part of changes to the constitution.
"We have defended the independence of the judiciary and made many reforms, but there is one thing more important than the independence of the judiciary and it is the impartiality of the judiciary," he said Tuesday.
But the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) remains wary about Erdogan's latest proposal which it will formally discuss on Thursday, its vice chairman Faruk Logoglu told AFP.
He said the party had demanded that the government withdraw the bill, not simply suspend it, and that it appeared Erdogan was still bent on pushing through tighter controls on the judiciary.
Erdogan has maintained a combative stance throughout the crisis, which erupted in December when dozens of people including business leaders, civil servants and the sons of cabinet ministers were detained in sweeping anti-graft raids.
On Tuesday, he described the corruption probe as a "black stain" on Turkey's democracy and rule of law and an "act of treachery".
And he vowed he would show no mercy in the power struggle pitting his government against those he accuses of acting as a "state within a state".
Erdogan has repeatedly accused the movement headed by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen -- without naming it -- of instigating a foreign-backed plot to topple the government ahead of key elections this year.
Turkey goes to the polls in March for local elections and again in August for a presidential ballot ahead of legislative elections in 2015.
Gulen's Hizmet (Service) organisation has denied any involvement in the probe -- which has thrown the spotlight on alleged bribery in Turkey's booming construction industry as well as money laundering and gold smuggling linked to Iran.
"It is absolutely unacceptable to link the corruption investigation with the Hizmet movement," Mustafa Yesil, chairman of the Journalists and Writers Foundation which is closely affiliated with Gulen, told reporters Tuesday.
Erdogan once held an almost unassailable grip on power with a bold vision for Turkey as a modern nation with a strong economy based on conservative Islamic values.
But the political turmoil has weakened his power base and exposed fissures within his AKP, which has won three elections since 2002, each time increasing its share of the vote.
Media reports say party officials have privately voiced fears about its performance in the March 30 polls, the first major test for Erdogan since anti-government protests swept the country in June.
Turkey's financial markets have tumbled over the crisis but the lira and local stocks were holding steady Wednesday.