Does Prime Minister Erdogan want to be President Erdogan?

April 30, 2010

Submitted by Ibon Villelabeitia

TURKEYRecent comments by Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan expressing support for moving to a presidential system of government have renewed speculation the country’s most charismatic politician covets the presidency — an assault some
believe he might launch after general elections due in 2011.

Critics say such calculations, although never made public, ultimately betray authoritarian tendencies of Erdogan, who has fought his way through Turkey’s rough and tumble politics from his days as an Istanbul mayor to the premier’s office.

But few expect Erdogan, a former Islamist whose AK Party ended the secularists’ decades-old grip on power in 2002, would try to claim his ultimate prize without first tailoring the
president’s largely symbolic job to meet his ambitions by drafting a new constitution along U.S. or French lines.

Erdogan suggested in an interview earlier this month he would interpret success in the next general elections as a mandate for sweeping constitutional change.
“After 2011 … a presidential system may again come to Turkey’s agenda … If the people give us their blessing, this can be discussed in the framework of a brand new constitution,” Erdogan said in words that opened up a debate on whether such a system would bring totalitarianism or more democracy to Turkey.

Whether Turkey ultimately moves from a parliamentarian to a presidential system would depend on the outcome of the elections.

Erdogan’s presidential ambitions may be squashed if his AK Party does poorly, and some polls suggest the AK Party will struggle to win a third term as a majority government.

Erdogan would do well to play on fears of a return of decades of coalition factionalism, paralysis and anarchy.

After all, there is a long Turkish tradition of strong leaders, from the Ottoman Pashas to Ataturk, and under Erdogan Turkey has gained unprecedented economic prosperity, financial stability and respect in the region.

Certainly business and financial markets crave stability and clarity. It would not, however, be the kind of stability to please the secularist military.

The armed forces, which have a record of ousting governments they consider a threat, have no liking for Erdogan and see his party as already commanding too much centralised power. Erdogan served a jail sentence in the 1990s for Islamist sedition and few senior commanders would see him as a convinced convert to secular democracy, even if he portrays himself as such.

Erdogan’s presidential debate has also raised the question of where President Abdullah Gul fits into all this.
Gul was elected in 2007 by parliament, which at the time also introduced changes to have the next president elected directly by voters for a five-year renewable term.

There is little legal clarity as to whether Gul, like previous presidents, should serve a single seven-year term and step down in 2014, or whether he should step down in 2012.

Would Gul step aside in 2012 and let his former boss move into Cankaya? Or will he challenge Erdogan by deciding to run again for president? Before becoming foreign minister, Gul served as “stand-in” premier for four months for Erdogan, who was banned from politics over a conviction for Islamist sedition.

Co-founders of the AK Party — formed as a coalition of pious, centre-right and nationalist elements — Erdogan and Gul have different personalities: Gul is soft-spoken, erudite and moderate. Erdogan is confrontational, explosive at times.

Will there be any bad blood between Gul and Erdogan?
“No, I don t think so. At least not in public, even if they feel tensions among themselves,” says Tarhan Erdem, an expert and analyst of Turkish elections.

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