ISTANBUL: Turkey will hold its first presidential polls next Sunday with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking to become a powerful head of state, amid fears from critics of a shift to autocratic one-man rule. Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) have led the country of 76 million people for over a decade but taking the presidency could see him serve two more five-year terms.
If he wins, Erdogan would become Turkey’s longest serving ruler since its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who based the post-Ottoman state on strict principles of secularism.
The presidency has in the last decades enjoyed a largely ceremonial role, but Erdogan has vowed to revamp the post by pressing for a change in the constitution to grant the head of state more powers.
The Aug. 10 vote marks the first time that Turks will directly elect their president – a change which Erdogan, 60, says will give the new president greater legitimacy for a more active role.
With just two other candidates standing against him, Erdogan is expected to emerge victorious. The chief uncertainty is whether he will win outright on Aug. 10 or require a second round vote two weeks later.
The surprise choice of the main opposition parties to challenge Erdogan is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, 70, the mild-mannered former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation whose academic demeanor is in total contrast to the combative premier.
The third candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, 41, nominated by pro-Kurdish forces, will do well to break into double figures but his performance could be crucial in determining whether the election goes to a runoff.
The latest survey by the private Konda research institute predicted Erdogan would win 55 percent of the vote, Ihsanoglu 38 and Demirtas 7.5.
A man clearly with his eye on history, Erdogan could still be in power in 2023 when Turkey celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding by Ataturk.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, said that as president Erdogan would look to control parliament, government and the judiciary.
“I think therefore he would consolidate significant amount of power and this would make him a strongman president,” he said, comparing Erdogan’s powers to those of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Erdogan’s critics accuse him of showing increasingly autocratic tendencies and presiding over a creeping Islamization of Turkey which risks eroding Ataturk’s secular legacy.
“Turkey could find itself with an autocratic regime in a system that is without checks and balances,” columnist Ahmet Ozer wrote in the Milliyet newspaper.
“The danger exists.”
Erdogan’s campaign has been given extra momentum by Israel’s deadly offensive in Gaza, allowing the premier to present himself as the sole Muslim leader truly standing up for the Palestinians and making inflammatory comparisons between Israel and Hitler.
Since becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan has taken the credit for high levels of growth and ambitious infrastructure projects aimed at bringing Turkey to a European standard of living.
But he was shaken last year by deadly protests against his rule and devastating corruption allegations against his government that he blamed on a former ally, the U.S.-based preacher Fetullah Gulen.
Yet Erdogan, a former semi-professional footballer who was once sent to prison for reciting a provocative Islamic poem, has come out fighting, denouncing his opponents with even greater force. He has traveled almost daily up and down the country to speak at mass rallies, using his rhetorical gifts to whip up crowds of tens of thousands.
Gigantic campaign posters adorn Istanbul at every street corner with slogans like “make Turkey even stronger” and “national will, national power” beneath images of Erdogan opening flagship infrastructure projects like the tunnel under the Bosphorus.
He even turned out in a friendly football match clad in the orange colours of the AKP, scoring three goals in 15 minutes to the delight of supporters and scorn of opponents.
He has slammed the pro-Gulen forces as a “parallel state” while jabbing mercilessly at Ihsanoglu as a dreamy philosopher who will get nothing done.
In the midst of the campaign, dozens of top police officers were arrested on suspicion of eavesdropping on the country’s leading officials, including Erdogan.
Ihsanoglu’s campaign has been low-key by comparison but he appears to be hoping to attract voters put off by the bombastic behavior of the premier and his plans for a powerful presidency.
Outgoing President Abdullah Gul – a founder of the AKP alongside Erdogan but these days a more moderate figure – has kept his own future plans under wraps amid speculation he might take a more pro-opposition stance.