Will Turkey's PM run for president?

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 21/03/07):

Turkey's presidential race is unusual in one key respect: nobody is running. As the April 15 deadline for candidate registration approaches, political tensions are rising and the media frenzy grows. By law, parliament must elect a successor to Ahmet Necdet Sezer by early May, but as yet there are no declared candidates.

The job is not unattractive, with the incumbent commanding a comfortable salary and numerous perks. He or she - though a woman has yet to hold the job - can veto legislation and wield wide powers of patronage. But for many Turks, Muslim or otherwise, their president's most vital duty is as chief guardian of the secular republic founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. And therein lies the electoral rub.

As matters stand, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's popular prime minister, is expected to seek the post. If he wants the job, his parliamentary majority will ensure he gets it. But political opponents and senior military figures claim that as leader of the "moderate" or "reformed" Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP), Mr Erdogan cannot be trusted not to subvert the constitution in pursuit of a covert Islamist agenda.

The increasingly importunate forces of xenophobic ultra-nationalism, linked to the January murder of the ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, go further. They say there is basically no difference between the AKP and the Kurdish Workers party (PKK), the proscribed Kurdish separatist movement. They say Mr Erdogan, when he was mayor of Turkey's second city, was known as "the imam of Istanbul". And horror of horrors, his wife, Emine, wears a headscarf.

Abdullah Gul, Mr Erdogan's deputy and Turkey's foreign minister, dismisses such criticism as irrelevant. "Presidential elections are always controversial. No one finds these arguments convincing any more." Mr Erdogan's reform record, and 35% overall economic growth in the past four years, speaks for itself, he said in an interview in his Ankara office.

The ruling party's candidates would be declared next month, Mr Gul added. "We will have a debate. We are listening. But we thought it was better for the country if we kept this debate in a narrow time period so it doesn't damage the country and the economy."

Sukru Elekdag, a senior member of the main opposition Republican People's party (CHP), promises a rough ride if Mr Erdogan does run. "Some people think that if he is president, he will not be able to carry out the job correctly because of his Islamist tendencies," he said. There were fears that Turkey's secular and western orientation would change and it would "slide towards the Islamic sphere", with religion playing a bigger role in education and the judiciary.

Seasoned political observers including Semih Idiz, a Milliyet newspaper columnist, say Mr Erdogan may yet wrongfoot his opponents by backing a supposedly more "conciliatory and consensual" AKP presidential candidate. "Vecdi Gonul, the defence minister and a former governor and apparatchik, is the sort of prototype figurehead they might choose," he said.

Such a move would enable the charismatic Mr Erdogan to lead the AKP into this autumn's general election. Without him, activists fear the party could fare badly, plunging the country back into ineffectual coalition governance and economic mismanagement.

Guven Sak, director of the Tepav thinktank in Ankara, also said he believed Mr Erdogan would decide not to stand. Faced with a divided opposition and a braggart rightwing fringe, his was a unique opportunity to emulate Labour's Tony Blair and make the once "unelectable" AKP Turkey's natural party of government, he suggested.

"The important issue for the man on the street is his livelihood," Dr Sak said. "Political tensions are arising from rapid structural change in the economy and from resulting social change." Turkey was in the grips of "uncontrolled modernisation" with little help from outside. Urbanisation, industrialisation and a huge construction boom were all part of it, he said. And it was this social turmoil, more than anger over Turkey's EU membership rebuff or "anti-Turkish" western policies, which was fuelling the ultra-nationalist backlash.

Right now, just keeping on track is Turkey's biggest challenge. If Mr Erdogan decides that is easier done as prime minister, his phantom presidential run will be over before it starts.