In bid to extend his grip, Turkish PM Erdogan to run for president

In power since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now running for president, a less powerful post. If he wins, he's expected to retool the largely symbolic position.

Umit Bektas/AP
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes his ruling party members before he has announced he is running for president in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, undaunted by a year of intermittent street protests and a lingering graft scandal, will run in the country's first direct presidential elections in August, his party announced on Tuesday.

The announcement came as no surprise. Mr. Erdogan, Turkey's most powerful politician in a generation, is nearing the end of his second term as prime minister, the maximum allowed by his party's bylaws. Winning the presidency, a hitherto less powerful post, offers him a chance to extend its rule, provided he can keep control of his party and of whoever succeeds him.

Erdogan said that the election would mark “a turning point in the history of Turkey” in a speech to members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara. The premier is overwhelmingly expected to win the presidential election.

“A win for Erdogan will be more than an extension of his rule. It will take Turkey into truly uncharted territory,” says Ersin Kalaycioglu, a professor of political science at Istanbul's private Sabanci University. “In order to run Turkey from the presidency, he will have to dramatically retool the state's balance of powers."

Erdogan's ascension to the president's seat would seemingly lessen his authority, by ending his tenure as prime minster and forcing him to resign his chairmanship of the AKP. Under Turkey's constitution, the presidency is framed as a largely apolitical and ceremonial post.

But analysts say that Erdogan will likely reshape the presidency into a more forceful position. “Erdogan could easily expand the powers of the office ... Remember, there is no impeachment process in our constitution,” says Ozgur Unluhisarcikli the Ankara office director of German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Mr. Unluhisarcikli and others say Erdogan could make use of a constitutional clause that allows the president to chair cabinet meetings. The president can already veto laws and appoint judges. In 2011, Erdogan tried and failed to get bipartisan support for constitutional reform that would have greatly strengthened the office's powers.

Close Erdogan advisor Yalcin Akdogan, writing in the pro-government daily Star, recently argued that Erdogan would win “a wider democratic mandate” as president, and that he would not stretch the powers of president beyond those described in the constitution. 

Moderating voice

Turkey's current president, Abdullah Gul, an AKP cofounder, has used the post to voice his opposition to the brash premier, who has tried to limit the judiciary and expand internet surveillance.

Mr. Gul has indicated that he plans to leave politics after his term ends in August. He says he has no plans to serve as prime minister, dismissing a Putin-Medvedev style swap as “a model that wouldn't be a completely suitable in Turkey.” Russian President Vladimir Putin served one term as prime minister before returning as president in 2012; Dimitry Medvedev was the intervening president. 

Gul's departure “would deprive the AKP of moral leadership and a key moderate voice,” says Sinan Ulgen, a Turkish policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Without Gul acting as an anchor, Erdogan's party may continue its drift towards more divisive, less centrist politics.” Mr. Ulgen predicts that Erdogan would appoint a "blind loyalist" as his successor as prime minister. 

Erdogan's main opponent in the presidential election will be Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a joint candidate fielded by Turkey's two largest opposition parties. An Islamic scholar and former head of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, Mr. Ihsanoglu is palatable to conservative Muslim voters that are Erdogan's electoral base. 

“This marks a historic shift for Turkey's opposition parties. They sense that a secular candidate can't win, that you have to appeal to the nation's pious as Erdogan does,” says Mr. Kalaycioglu.

Popularity endures

Opinion polls put Erdogan's support at over 50 percent, with Ihsanoglu's near 35 percent. Sellatin Demirtas, a Kurdish candidate, has around ten percent of the vote.

The AKP remains popular in Turkey. In March it handily won a round of local elections, despite months of street protests and the resignation of four ministers over a corruption scandal.

The next electoral test will come in 2015when the country's next round of parliamentary elections are scheduled. “The AKP's performance relies primarily on the economy and if it can moderate its rhetoric,” says Ulgen. “This [presidential] election may seem a foregone conclusion, but the AKP's fate is still very much up in the air.”

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