Turkey’s leader vies for role of strongman

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Internal divisions within his party and a growing rift with sitting President Abdullah Gul, however, could throw up hurdles to Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions. Mr. Gul would have to step down to allow Mr. Erdogan to run for president. One scenario has the two leaders swapping positions with Mr. Gul holding a prime ministership that is less powerful.

Mr. Erdogan has become increasingly outspoken on everything from foreign policy to the realm of private morals. Last month, he said young people should get married as soon as possible and that women should bear at least three children.

In November, he called Israel a “terrorist state” because of its war with Islamic terrorists in the Gaza Strip. His tirade brought a mild rebuke from the State Department in Washington.

Domestic critics accuse Mr. Erdogan of wielding authoritarian powers. As an example, his government has accused top-level military officers and journalists of plotting a coup. Turkey has 50 jailed journalists — more than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Disturbing trends

Still, the prime minister is popular in Turkey.

“This style that Prime Minister Erdogan presents is one that the Turkish people love,” Mr. Unluhisarcikli said.

Mr. Erdogan has not always been so heavy-handed and was once seen as a democratic reformer. When his party rose to power in 2002, he embarked on far-reaching democratic reforms that brought the once-powerful military under civilian control.

He also started talks for Turkey to join the European Union.

“He’s made a formidable contribution for democratization and as a reformer,” said Cengiz Candar, a veteran columnist for the daily Radikal newspaper who has covered Mr. Erdogan’s career.

Lately, however, Mr. Erdogan has shown disturbing trends.

“He’s not the best example of a democratic leader,” Mr. Candar said. “He projects the image of one-man rule.”

The party relies strongly on support from Turkey’s Sunni Muslim establishment, which receives lavish government support for mosques and religious programs.

The bureau in charge of religious affairs has ballooned into a massive agency with a budget of $2.1 billion — more than the budgets for the ministries of health, science, industry, culture and foreign affairs.

Turkey’s secular establishment remains worried that Mr. Erdogan’s project to remake the constitution will lead to an eroding of the republic’s enforced secular identity, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

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