ISTANBUL — Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, barred from seeking a fourth term, is exploring ways to create a strongman presidency and run for the powerful new office next year, but critics fear his political engineering could undermine the country’s secular democratic tradition.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister since 2003, has rejected the American constitutional blueprint of checks and balances between the White House and Congress, and instead has called for a “Turkish-style presidential system.”
“The U.S. president cannot appoint an ambassador. He cannot even solely decide on the sale of a helicopter,” Mr. Erdogan told Turkish reporters during a recent trip to Spain.
Members of parliament from Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party recently outlined a proposal to transfer executive power from the prime minister to a muscular presidency, now largely a ceremonial post. The office would include the authority to hire and fire Cabinet ministers at will.
“He doesn’t do ‘checks-and-balances,’” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now heads the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. “In succeeding elections, every time he has actually become more polarizing, and that’s certainly been his modus operandi lately.”
Mr. Erdogan’s domestic critics fear that he is establishing an authoritarian state with a hidden agenda to impose strict Islamic laws, but Turkey’s allies largely have been reluctant to criticize him.
Turkey, which sits strategically between Europe and the Middle East, is a strong U.S. ally and a member of NATO since 1952 — only three years after the establishment of the Western military pact.
NATO countries have pledged to send Turkey six Patriot missile batteries and troops to defend itself against missiles from Syria, whose 21-month-old civil war has spilled over the Turkish border.
Mr. Erdogan, 58, has denounced Syrian President Bashar Assad for his indiscriminate attacks on civilians and is sheltering members of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
The foreign policy implications of a strong Turkish presidency are unclear, but a domestic uproar against any power grab by Mr. Erdogan could force Western democracies to scrutinize his motives.
“Changing Turkey’s regime to a presidential system is a huge challenge,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund office in Ankara. “And it will be the major issue in Turkey in the upcoming years.”
Mr. Erdogan is trying to use his party’s dominance in parliament to change the constitution.
Opposition parties, fearful of Mr. Erdogan’s apparently limitless political ambitions, are resisting. The conflict could spark a political fight that likely would decide the limits to Mr. Erdogan’s power as president after the 2014 election.
Mr. Erdogan was re-elected unopposed as party leader in September, but party rules will prevent him from running again for prime minister after his third term expires in three years. He recently said he is prepared to serve in public office for the next 10 years.
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.
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.
“Secular Turks live in constant fear that [as] more and more devout generations are coming, they will be intervening in their private lives,” said Hurriyet newspaper columnist Burak Bekdil.