Timing of his retreat from leadership of AKP is right if Turkey's prime minister wants to be candidate in presidential elections in 2014.
Erdogan paves way for presidency bid
ISTANBUL // Ten years after his party came to power in Turkey, party leader and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has begun a phased farewell from party politics in what is widely perceived as a preparation for the presidency.
Mr Erdogan, 58, was re-elected to the post of leader of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the last time at a party convention in Ankara yesterday. He was the only candidate.
"This is not a farewell," Mr Erdogan told delegates in a televised speech before the vote. "I will continue to serve the nation. God willing, we will be together in other duties, in other areas later."
It was the closest Mr Erdogan has come yet to confirming that he wants to become president, a plan that is an open secret in Ankara but has yet to be officially confirmed by Mr Erdogan himself. The timing of his phased retreat from the AKP leadership would fit if he wanted to become president two years from now.
"One thing is certain, whoever you talk to, he wants to become president," said Okay Gonensin, a columnist for the Vatan daily and a veteran journalist, last week.
After his re-election as party leader, Mr Erdogan now can serve a maximum of three more years, according to the AKP bylaws. The presidential elections are scheduled for 2014.
Mr Erdogan said during last year's general election campaign that he would not return to parliament in the next elections in 2015, an important indicator because he would have to give up his seat in parliament if he were to become president.
While Mr Erdogan's planned path to the presidency is becoming clearer, some issues appear to be unresolved. One is the question of who could replace him as AKP leader.
The new party chairman would have big shoes to fill. After founding the AKP in 2001, Mr Erdogan led the party to three consecutive victories in general elections and presided over a prolonged economic boom and the country's rise as a regional power.
So far, Mr Erdogan has no obvious successor in the AKP, a party that is a political umbrella for liberals, Muslim conservatives and nationalists, and requires a strong leader to keep it together, according to analysts.
The search for a new party leader, and prime minister in case of another election victory, is complicated by an AKP bylaw that says legislators can serve only up to three consecutive terms in parliament. That rule means a whole generation of veteran AKP officials will no longer be legislators after 2015. In Turkey, the prime minister has to be a member of parliament.
Names of several prominent AKP politicians, such as Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, have been bandied about as possible new leaders, but Gonensin said they did not appear to have enough backing from within the party.
"The AKP is really a coalition" of different political groups, Gonensin said. "No one in the AKP has been able to tell me so far how this will work."
Also, it is not known whether Abdullah Gul, the current president and a close personal friend of Mr Erdogan, is willing to step down as head of state in 2014 to make way for Mr Erdogan, instead of running for re-election himself. A poll published by the Taraf daily last week said Turkish voters as well as AKP supporters preferred Mr Gul over Mr Erdogan if they had the choice between the two in a presidential election.
Media reports have suggested there could be a Russian-style swap, with Mr Erdogan moving to the presidency and Mr Gul, 61, returning to the post of prime minister.
Mr Gul held that position from November 2002 until Mr Erdogan took over in March the following year. Mr Gul then moved to the foreign ministry, which he occupied until he was elected president in 2007.
Several commentators, including Gonensin, would welcome the return of Mr Gul as prime minister because of his vast political experience both in Turkey and internationally.
Mr Gul, a founding member of the AKP, would also command much respect as party leader, Gonensin said.
But the transition process does not seem to be free of tension.
When some AKP officials called on Mr Gul in July to step down as president at the end of his first term, Mr Gul's spokesman said the head of state was "really sorry and hurt", adding that the president could very well seek re-election.