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Erdogan presidency risks further polarising tense Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) waves to members of the  ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), flanked by his wife Emin Erdogan, at a ceremony in Ankara on July 1, 2014
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a ceremony in Ankara, on July 1, 2014

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to represent all Turks as he declared he would stand for president, but critics fear his assumption of a powerful presidency risks further polarising an already divided country.

Erdogan, 60, who has already been premier for 11 years, made clear in his announcement on Tuesday that he intended to be a much more powerful president than the largely ceremonial role performed by past incumbents.

"If elected, I will be everyone's president," he said. "It will be a different type of presidency."

Erdogan is widely expected to win the August 10 polls that would see him extend his hold on power at least until 2019 and -- should he seek a second mandate -- possibly until 2024.

But he is entering uncharted waters by seeking to become a strong president without the constitutional framework that would enshrine the head of state as Turkey's most powerful political player.

- 'President for everyone?' -

The potential for strife is clear at the most turbulent time in his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party's (AKP) decade-long domination of Turkey, after a year of protests and a stream of corruption allegations.

"He hasn't been everyone's prime minister, how can he be everyone's president now?" wrote Mehmet Tezkan, a columnist with the liberal Milliyet newspaper.

"He did the opposite, opened deep cultural rifts and encouraged polarisation for the sake of votes," he wrote.

Tezkan added: "But hold on a minute: by 'everyone' Erdogan means everyone who thinks like him, who applauds him and who votes for him."

Ilter Turan, professor of political science at Istanbul's Bilgi University, said the biggest problem is that Erdogan will be an unaccountable president under the current constitution.

"It will be the cabinet and the prime minister who will be held accountable for Erdogan's actions. If Erdogan acts recklessly, his closest friends may turn their backs on him," he told AFP.

This presidential election is the first time that Turkey will directly elect a head of state -- previously the candidate was chosen by parliament. Erdogan is expected to use popular legitimacy to justify a ramped-up mandate.

"He will present himself as a president elected by the people," said commentator Serkan Demirtas of the Hurriyet Daily News. Meddling with Turkey's parliamentary system "risks exacerbating the tensions that are dividing Turkey", he added.

Erdogan's government has been shaken by a series of crises over the last year -- from mass anti-government protests to the Soma mining disaster that killed 301 and prompted a sometimes callous reaction from the government.

With each crisis, Erdogan's rhetoric simply became more fierce, sharpening the divide between his supporters and secular segments of society who feel alienated by his Islamic-tinted rule.

- Strong president, weak PM -

The Turkish strongman clearly does not want to be a president like current incumbent Abdullah Gul, who became known as the "notary" for his rubber stamping of legislation.

Erdogan's top political advisor Ibrahim Kalin wrote in the pro-AKP daily Sabah that the prime minister "has never been a part-time political player... As president, he will remain a strong political figure."

A key decision will be who replaces Erdogan as prime minister, with critics warning the appointment of a "yes man" would mean Turkey is heading to autocratic rule.

"It's unlikely that whoever the AKP runs for prime minister will be strong enough to resist Erdogan's all-but-assured interference in governing," Brent Sasley, a Turkey researcher at the University of Texas told AFP.

Erdogan's long time ally Gul -- who has taken a generally softer line and bickered with the premier over the last year -- was conspicuously absent from the presidency announcement and his political future is unclear.

The prime minister's main rival is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a softly spoken academic who has none of the charisma of the combative Erdogan.

Erdogan is widely expected to win the election, and his main concern is to score a knockout blow with an outright majority in the first round of voting on August 10.

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