As the Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- the Islamic-rooted party he helped build into one of Turkey's most powerful and successful political operations in decades -- approaches its annual congress this weekend, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains the undisputed heavyweight champ of Turkish politics. Regardless of what one thinks of Erdogan, his achievements, which include firmly pushing the once-powerful military back into their barracks and opening up a new space for religious expression in Turkey's public sphere, certainly make him one of his country's historically significant transformational figures.
This congress will mark a juncture for Erdogan. Since the AKP's bylaws prevent him from running for another term in parliament, it is widely assumed that the still ambitious PM has his sights set on becoming Turkey's next president (albeit after his party is able to engineer some constitutional changes which would make the presidency more powerful). Reuters sets the stage for the AKP congress, which will be held in Ankara:
The party's September 30 congress is unlikely to offer any sign Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, viewed by many Turks as their strongest leader since Ataturk, is loosening his grip on a heavily-centralized party or on the country as a whole. AK, its initials spelling out the word for purity, is Erdogan's child.
New members of the party's administrative body will be picked to steer it through an election cycle beginning next year, but Erdogan will make sure those close to him remain in charge, helping smooth his way to an expected bid for a newly-constituted executive presidency in 2014.
"The importance of this convention is that it will determine the people who will be at the core of the party after Erdogan becomes president," said Koray Caliskan, associate political science professor at the Bosphorus University and a columnist for the liberal daily Radikal.
"He will want the leader to obey him but at the same time to balance different opinions in the party."
But is Erdogan hitting some bumps along the road to his coronation as Turkey's new president? While Erdogan remains popular, a recently-released poll conducted by the well-regarded Turkish firm Metropoll yielded some interesting results. Asked if they had to choose between voting for the mercurial Erdogan or the current President, the more affable Abdullah Gul, whose seven-year terms ends in 2014, almost 51 percent said they would pick Gul, while only 22 percent said they would support Erdogan (16 percent were undecided).
The surveys other results give a sense of why the public may not be feeling so generous towards Erdogan as they may have been in the past. The number of those who said they believe Turkey is heading in the "wrong direction" shot up from 33 percent in June to 50 percent in September, while the number who believe the country is heading in the "right direction" went down from 46 percent to just under 32 percent over the same period. Meanwhile, 56 percent of respondents said they don't believe the AKP government is properly dealing with the Syria crisis, while some 55 percent said they feel "less safe" now compared to a year ago. With attacks by the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on Turkish security forces on the rise and the situation in Syria feeding a growing sense of unease in Turkey, it's easy to understand how these results came about. Still, as analyst Semih Idiz explains in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News, the polling data should make Erdogan concerned:
If Erdoğan does not start delivering on the Kurdish issue, prevent more negative fallout from the Syria crisis, and do away with economic doubts, especially after the latest spate of price hikes that hurt lower-income groups, then the wind could turn against him.
Turks may decide that rather than a person that has not been a unifying figure who is able to solve key issues, who lacks tolerance against other points of view, and attacks his critics in the harshest manner possible, a pacific person who is unifying, truly modest, moderate and tolerant, as well as understanding of the ways of the world, is better for the country.