x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Erdogan’s presidential ambitions could divide party

The Turkish prime minister could be heading for a clash with a long-time friend over who should be the ruling party's candidate for president. Thomas Seibert reports

While Mr Erdogan has yet to confirm his candidacy for the presidency, he said during a television interview that he would bow to his supporters’ wishes on the issue. Adem Altan / AFP
While Mr Erdogan has yet to confirm his candidacy for the presidency, he said during a television interview that he would bow to his supporters’ wishes on the issue. Adem Altan / AFP

ISTANBUL // Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be heading for a bruising clash with a long-time friend and ruling party ally over his presidential ambitions.

Mr Erdogan, 59, who has been premier for 10 and a half years, is barred from running for parliament and the post of prime minister again in elections due in 2015 under the rules of his Justice and Development Party Party (AKP).

While Mr Erdogan has yet to confirm his candidacy for the largely ceremonial position as president, he said during a television interview last week that he would bow to his supporters’ wishes on the issue. And he has received some strong support from AKP heavyweights.

His remarks came as the incumbent, Abdullah Gul, has distanced himself from Mr Erdogan in key areas, including the harsh government response to a wave of anti-government unrest in June.

As a result, there is increasing speculation on whether Mr Erdogan and Mr Gul, despite being long-time political allies and close personal friends, could be heading towards a clash over who should be the ruling party’s candidate for next year’s presidential election.

Mr Gul, a founding member of the AKP who served as prime minister and foreign minister before becoming president with broad support of the ruling party in 2007, has not said whether he will seek a second term as president in elections due in August next year.

In a speech in parliament last week, Mr Gul, 62, made it clear that he is not thinking of retirement. “I will continue in my service to the nation,” he said.

Mr Gul also praised peaceful protests as “a new phenomenon in our democratic development” and called on state institutions to draw lessons from the June demonstrations. During the June unrest, Mr Gul had asked demonstrators to remain peaceful and called on the police to refrain from disproportionate use of force.

His description of the unrest stood in a marked contrast to that of Mr Erdogan, who has described protesters as “vandals” and “riff-raff”.

However, Mr Erdogan has insisted that there will be no rift between the two.

“I don’t expect there will be such a problem,” he said during the television interview, adding that the unity of the AKP was important.

Adil Gur, a prominent pollster and head of the polling firm A&G, said there was tension between the two, but he did not expect a face-off.

“There is competition,” Mr Gur said this week.

“But it will not result in rival candidacies, it will be resolved before the vote” by decisions inside the AKP, he added.

However, the prospect of a presidential candidacy by Mr Erdogan has received strong support from AKP leaders. Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman, said that it was “natural” for Mr Erdogan to seek the top office. The AKP’s towering position in Turkish politics means that its endorsement is crucial for the success of a presidential candidate. According to opinion polls, the AKP has kept its commanding lead over other parties since 2011, when it won about 50 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections.

In the television interview, Mr Erdogan would not be drawn on rumours that he wanted to swap posts with Mr Gul in the style of Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, who have traded the posts of president and prime minister in recent years.

“That is your wish,” said Mr Erdogan.

In all-party talks about a new constitution for Turkey, the AKP has been pushing for a French-style presidential system that would give the Turkish head of state, whose duties are mostly ceremonial, wide-ranging executive powers. But there is no agreement on such a reform.

Mr Gur said the lack of real political powers of the presidency could persuade Mr Erdogan to refrain from a candidacy.

“Maybe he does not want to be president under current rules,” he said. In that case, the AKP could change its present provisions to open the way for Mr Erdogan to seek a new term as prime minister, while Mr Gul could run for a second presidential term.

Next year’s poll will be the first time since military rule in the 1980s that Turkey will pick its president by popular vote, instead of by a parliamentary decision.

tseibert@thenational.ae