ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Tuesday he would stand in August’s presidential election, paving the way to become the country’s longest and most dominant serving leader since Ataturk.Erdogan — who is expected to win the poll despite a turbulent year that saw unprecedented protests against his rule — declared the election would mark the start of a “new Turkey”. The election will be the first time Turks will directly choose a president, and Erdogan indicated he intended to be much more than a ceremonial head of state. The announcement, putting an end to months of speculation, was made to 4,000 cheering members of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) at a glitzy ceremony in Ankara.
“The owner of this victory is only Allah,” Erdogan said in a speech laced with Islamic references. “We are bracing for a blessed journey to serve the people.” Erdogan’s wife Emine could be seen wiping tears from her eyes. His boisterous supporters watching the announcement chanted “Turkey is proud of you”. If he wins, Erdogan, 60, would serve as president until 2019, with the possibility of a second mandate, making him Turkey’s longest serving leader since the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
However Erdogan’s move to switch from the premier’s office to the Cankaya presidential palace in Ankara comes at the most turbulent moment in his decade-long domination of Turkey. The government was shaken by mass protests in 2013, a torrent of corruption allegations, a damaging feud with former allies, and most recently its clumsy response to the Soma mine disaster that killed 301 people. Still hailed by supporters for presiding over an economic transformation of the majority Muslim country, Erdogan is now accused by critics of seeking to run the country like an Ottoman sultan.
“Everything is being redesigned in a way towards a kind of one-man, one-party rule after the prime minister is elected president,” commentator Mehmet Yilmaz wrote in the mass circulation Hurriyet daily.
But Erdogan denied that he will be a polarising president. “If elected, I will be everyone’s president,” he said.
His candidacy means Erdogan’s one-time close ally and co-founder of the Islamic-rooted AKP, incumbent President Abdullah Gul will be stepping aside, with his political future uncertain.
Gul, who has repeatedly squabbled with Erdogan in recent months, appeared to be absent from the Ankara rally, which was attended by the entire AKP elite. If elected, Erdogan is expected to wield far greater power than the largely ceremonial role performed by previous incumbents and he indicated the direct election would give the head of state a greater mandate.
“The fact that the president will be elected by the people is a turning point for democracy,” declared Erdogan. “The presidency will not be a place of rest.” “August 10 will be a turning point on the path to a new Turkey,” he added. The president was previously chosen by parliament.
In an apparent reference to the AKP’s drive to lessen the historic influence of the powerful Turkish military, he added: “It puts an end to a history of tutelages.”
Despite his recent troubles, Erdogan still commands fervent support across the country, especially from rural populations and religiously conservative small business owners who prospered under his rule.
Erdogan is widely expected to win the election, possibly outright in the first round on August 10, without the need for a second round scheduled for August 24.
To the surprise of many, the two main secular opposition parties fielded a devout intellectual — the former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu — as a joint candidate to challenge the pious Erdogan.
But while Ihsanoglu, 70, will may play well with religious voters, the bespectacled and softly spoken academic has none of the charisma of the combative Erdogan. “I didn’t start this struggle after I turned 60. I’ve been in it since I was 18,” sniped Erdogan in apparent reference to his rival’s age. Meanwhile the main pro-Kurdish party on Monday announced its candidate would be Selahattin Demirtas, an energetic figure who nonetheless is expected to struggle to break into double figures.
Erdogan said the stalled peace process with Kurdish rebels would continue.
“Turkey has no other option than a solution, brotherhood and peace,” he said. He also reaffirmed he would work for NATO member Turkey’s full accession to the European Union.
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