ISTANBUL — With Turkey's ruling party having won a resounding victory in nationwide local elections on March 30, observers claim the door has opened up for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to run in August’s presidential elections. But there are major obstacles to Erdogan's ambitions.
Supporters of Prime Minister Erdogan celebrated the AK Party's strong showing well into the night. The prime minister claimed the electoral victory not only renewed his political mandate, but also vindicated him of allegations of high-level government graft.
Cengiz Aktar of the Istanbul Policy Center says that victory now opens the door to the prime minister’s ultimate political ambition.
"The prime minister feels that he won, feels he was whitewashed from [cleared of] all the corruption allegations," said Aktar. "Therefore, he feels free to go for the presidency and change the regime into a presidential system -- a bit Putin-like presidential system, where there are no checks or balances. This will deepen the existing tensions and polarizations and antagonisms that exist in this society."
In the clearest indicator yet of his presidential ambitions, Erdogan appeared to rule out continuing as prime minister, saying he was opposed to changing a party regulation forbidding a fourth term.
His close allies have also been forcefully arguing that the presidency should have greater powers than its current largely ceremonial role. That's because, they argue, this is the first time a president will be elected by popular vote.
But previous efforts to enhance presidential powers failed because opposition parties opposed such a move.
Observers say one of the main factors behind the opposition is the accusation that Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian.
Asli Aydintasbas, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says despite Erdogan's electoral successes, he remains a deeply divisive figure, making a presidential bid difficult.
"Erdogan is very special figure in Turkish politics, in the sense that he is so popular and so hated at the same time," said Aydintasbas. "There are people who would take a bullet for him -- thousands and tens thousands - and those who want him to see him dead."
Devlet Bahceli, head of one of the main opposition parties (National Action Party) said anyone but Erdogan should be president. Most of the prime minister's opponent have similar feelings, observers say.
Erdogan initiated peace talks two years ago with the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, and the leadership of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, has not ruled out supporting Erdogan’s presidential bid.
Erdogan's AK Party won around 44 percent of the vote in March’s local elections -- well ahead of its nearest rival, the secular CHP, which won 28 percent, but short of the minimum 50-percent-plus-one-vote share he would need to win the presidential election in one round of voting and avoid a runoff.
The BDP, which won 6 percent in the local elections, could make up the shortfall.
But Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University says even with such support, there is no guarantee Erdogan will win the presidential race.
"Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be tense. It going to be more polarized and it’s going to be more brutal," said Ozel.
Yet to be clarified are the intentions of the incumbent president, Abdullah Gul, who is a founding member of the AK Party and a close colleague of the prime minister.
Gul has not declared his intentions but has called for a meeting with Erdogan to discuss the presidency. Observers say the outcome of that meeting will likely be critical in determining the outcome of August's presidential election.