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Turkey's Erdogan eyes historic move to presidency

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is confident of easily winning the presidential election but faces a much harder task after the vote in implementing his self-declared mission of changing Turkey's political system.

ANKARA: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is confident of easily winning the presidential election but faces a much harder task after the vote in implementing his self-declared mission of changing Turkey's political system. Compared to previous Turkish heads of state who have fulfilled largely ceremonial roles, Erdogan wants to be a president like no other since modern Turkey's founder, Ataturk.

He and his closest advisors have already vowed that Erdogan will be an active and politically powerful president, promising the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) will move to change Turkey's constitution. Changing the basic law would give Erdogan the full legal framework to serve as a powerful president for possibly two five-year terms, meaning he could still be head of state when modern Turkey celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023.

"The post of president is not a job for relaxation," declared Erdogan. "People want to see a president who runs around and sweats." 

But Turkey is already seeing political tensions unprecedented in the AKP's 12-year domination of the country after mass protests last year by young secular Turks tired of the AKP and corruption allegations against Erdogan and his circle. Moving to rip up the old constitution and impose a presidential -- or at least semi-presidential -- system in place of the current parliamentary one could exacerbate those tensions even more.

"It is clear that Erdogan wants to make a break with the parliamentary system," said Serkan Demirtas, Ankara bureau chief of the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper. "He wants to tailor the constitution to his own size and try to break it down. But the constitutional court, which is controlled by judges who have already thwarted some of his moves, will be a barrier to his ambitions."

DEBATE OVER CONSTITUTION

The current constitution was drawn up in 1982 after the bloody 1980 military coup that ousted the government and resulted in the execution of dozens of people and the arrest of hundreds of thousands. AKP officials have emphasised that the constitution is the unwanted inheritance of military rule and must be changed so that the president takes full responsibility for running the country.

But the party has already tried unsuccessfully to change the constitution, and much will depend on whether it is able to win a crushing majority in 2015 legislative elections to force amendments through parliament. A two-thirds majority in parliament is needed to change the constitution, with a 60 per cent majority capable of making amendments if they are later approved by referendum.

The August 10 presidential election is as much a choice between two different systems of running the country as much as political visions of Turkey's future. Erdogan's main rival in the polls, the mild-mannered former head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, is a pious Muslim like the premier but wants to keep the current parliamentary system based on a neutral president.

The current constitution also says that the president must sever relations with their political party, something hard to imagine in Erdogan's case given he is a founding father of the AKP. Jean Marcou, a professor of politics at Sciences Po in Grenoble, said that Turkey appeared to be heading along the same path as France in 1962 when a parliamentary system was turned into a presidential one in a referendum to accomodate Charles de Gaulle. "This evolution will lead to the installation of a semi-presidential system," he wrote on his Ovipot blog.