Erdogan closer to Turkish presidency with allies' public backing

By Jonathon Burch

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, accused of authoritarian rule at demonstrations in June, has taken a step towards what he hopes will be a stronger executive presidency after two senior politicians publicly backed him for the post.

With less than a year to the vote, speculation has been mounting over what role Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, who occupies the current largely figurehead presidential post, will play in Turkey's first popular presidential election in 2014.

The two were founding members of the ruling AK Party (AKP) in 2001 and longtime allies. Their relations have appeared at times strained over the last year, not least over a police crackdown on anti-government demonstrations this Summer.

"If our prime minister wants to run, then we will say with no hesitation, 'Our friend Tayyip Erdogan is our candidate', the matter will be finished," Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and another AKP co-founder, told Turkey's Aksiyon magazine.

"If the prime minister wishes this, then it is also natural for it to happen. I don't think Abdullah Gul would feel differently towards such a wish," Arinc said.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for a decade, cannot run again as prime minister in 2015 according to AKP rules, and had been long expected to stand for a newly-created executive presidency, although his plans to establish such an enhanced role have stalled.

Gul, who has emerged as a more popular presidential candidate in opinion polls, is allowed to run for a second term, though he has not publicly expressed any intention to do so.

Huseyin Celik, deputy chairman and spokesman for the AKP, said it was in the country's best interests for Erdogan to become president next year and sought to play down any rift.

"The friendship between our prime minister and our president runs very deep. It is a friendship that has passed many tests. When our prime minister decides to become a candidate, I don't think Mr. Gul will say, 'I'll run too'," Celik told the Kral FM radio station in an interview.

Erdogan's brash and stern nature often stands in contrast to Gul's more moderate and soft-spoken approach, a distinction most noticeable in their stances on Syria and Egypt.

While any open confrontation between Erdogan and Gul is broadly seen as unlikely, differences between the two men have become increasingly apparent.

In perhaps his most open display of irritation last October, Erdogan hit out at what he called "double-headed" government, a thinly-veiled reference to the presidency, after Gul remarked on the police's heavy handling of a banned rally in Ankara.

Gul dismissed the comments, saying "the constitution and laws clearly state our authority, duty and responsibilities".

Differences have also surfaced more recently. Erdogan repeatedly dismissed demonstrators who took part in widespread anti-government protests this summer as "riff-raff", while Gul was more conciliatory and called for dialogue.

What happens at the ballot box next year will also depend on whether Erdogan is able to push through a new constitution, including provisions for an executive presidency, a move seen as less and less likely as the election cycle nears.

Efforts to draft a new charter have all but stalled due to disagreements among the main four political parties, not leastly over the question of a more powerful presidency.

Opponents fear such a position would further consolidate Erdogan's grip without a parliament strong enough to rein him in. The current presidency is largely ceremonial, though the president must approve laws passed by parliament and make important appointments in the judiciary and education. (Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton)

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