ANKARA: Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his candidacy Tuesday for a more powerful presidency which rivals fear may entrench authoritarian rule and supporters, especially conservative Muslims, see as the crowning prize in his drive to reshape NATO member Turkey.
Supporters of his ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party cheered, clapped and sang pro-Erdogan songs after deputy chairman Mehmet Ali Sahin announced the prime minister’s widely expected candidacy in the August presidential election.
“We entered politics for Allah, we entered politics for the people,” Erdogan told a crowd of thousands in an auditorium in the capital Ankara, where the party faithful erupted into chants of “Turkey is proud of you.”
Erdogan, hugely popular despite a graft scandal he blamed on traitors and terrorists, is very likely to win the August vote.
In doing so, he would bolster his executive powers after 11 years as prime minister that have seen him subdue a secularist judiciary and civil service and tame a once all-powerful army. He has long sought a powerful presidency to escape the vagaries and potential obstacles of the current parliamentary system.
Critics see in this a move to cast off remaining checks on his power.
“They called us regressive because we said our prayers,” Erdogan said in a speech dotted with references to his faith.
“They said we weren’t good enough to be a village leader, that we couldn’t be prime minister, that we couldn’t be elected president. They didn’t even deign to see us as an equal person in the eyes of the state.”
Erdogan, 60, offers himself as champion of a conservative religious population treated for generations as second class citizens. A new breed of Islamic entrepreneur has arisen, the headscarf, symbol of female Islamic piety, was seen for the first time in state institutions. Islamist rhetoric that 15 years ago won Erdogan a jail term is now commonplace.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said Erdogan was polarizing society.
“Someone who does not believe in the separation of powers cannot be a president,” Kilicdaroglu told members of his secularist party. “Someone who does not believe in the supremacy of law, whose sense of justice has not developed cannot be a presidential candidate.”
The presidency Erdogan would assume if elected would in theory differ little from the largely ceremonial post occupied by incumbent Abdullah Gul.
But his personal authority and the fact of being elected by the people, not parliament, would in effect allow a reading of the constitution that grants broader powers.
The candidates’ list for the election testifies to dramatic change wrought in Turkey by his premiership, an old secularist elite yielding to two men of Islamist pedigree and a third from a long-suppressed Kurdish minority. No one campaigns now on a secularist, anti-Islamist platform, once the only permissible step to power.
Erdogan’s Turkey had been held up in the West as a worthy example of a functioning Islamic democracy, on the edge of a volatile Middle East.
He has also brought within reach a possible end to a 30-year Kurdish insurgency which has killed 40,000 people and vowed in his speech to maintain a peace process with militants in which he has invested considerable political capital.