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Turkey Poised for First Direct Presidential Poll


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan wave to supporters after a rally in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014.

Millions of people in Turkey head to the polls Sunday for the country's first direct presidential election.

Turnout is expected to be high as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former chief of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party.

Erdogan is the front-runner. If elected, he says he intends to change the constitution and establish an executive presidency. In the past, Turkey's presidents have been ceremonial figureheads.

Erdogan’s campaign, backed by his ruling AK Party, has massively outspent his two rivals, and the prime minister's supporters are widely seen as well organized and well financed across the country.

Erdogan promises he will represent Turkey's "national will” when he becomes president. Political analyst Atilla Yesilada, of Global Source Partners, says an Erdogan administration is likely to be very different than the presidential role that Turks are accustomed to.

"It appears to me a new blueprint is being crafted, [with] almost all the major policy decisions of Turkey being taken in the presidential palace by Erdogan," said Yesilada.

The prime minister has said he would exercise the full powers of the presidency under Turkey's existing laws, including the authority to call parliament, summon cabinet meetings and appoint prime ministers, the council of ministers and some high court judges.

Religious conservatives, who are Erdogan's core supporters, see his likely rise to the presidency as the crowning achievement of his drive to reshape Turkey. In his decade as prime minister, he has broken the hold of the secular elite that dominated government since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The prime minister's critics are disturbed by his Islamist political roots and his increasingly authoritarian bent. In the past year, Erdogan has purged thousands of police and prosecutors, increased the powers of the intelligence agency and banned access to YouTube and Twitter as he fought off corruption probes that implicated the government and family members.

Erdogan's campaign slogan is "national will, national power." He says whatever the outcome of Sunday's election, Turkey will not be the same.

Rivals campaign against 'authoritarianism'

In contrast to Erdogan, his rivals, Selahattin Demirtas and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, are campaigning against "authoritarianism," promising they will not make significant changes in the country's balance of power.

But the prime minister's fortunes have been boosted by difficulties facing by his chief rival, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The center-left Republican People's Party selected the former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation as its candidate in the hopes that his religious background would win over some traditional supporters of the prime minister.

Analyst Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels says that move may have backfired.

"It really hinges on whether [Ihsanoglu] gets full support from the CHP [Republican People's Party] constituency," said Ulgen. "And, looking at the reaction from within the CHP, that is not very likely to happen. We may see a split within the party because of the conservative background of the candidate."

Experts say many CHP supporters could boycott the vote. However, Ihsanoglu also is backed by the right-wing National Action Party.

Regardless of who wins, political analysts and observers expect that Turkey's deep political polarization will only intensify.

Some information for this report comes from AP and Reuters.