Turkish PM, Tayyip Erdogan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISTANBUL - Tayyip Erdogan was poised to become his country's first elected president as Turks go to the polls on Sunday, fulfilling his dream of what he calls a "new Turkey" and what his opponents say will be an increasingly authoritarian and polarized nation.
A victory for Erdogan would seal his place in history after more than a decade as prime minister in which Turkey has emerged as a regional economic power, riding on a wave of religiously conservative support to transform the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
But his critics warn that a President Erdogan, with his roots in political Islam and intolerance of dissent, would lead the NATO member and European Union candidate further away from Ataturk's secular ideals.
"God willing a new Turkey will be established ... a strong Turkey is rising again from the ashes," Erdogan said on Saturday in his final campaign speech in the conservative stronghold of Konya in central Turkey.
"Let's leave the old Turkey behind. The politics of polarization, divisiveness and fear has passed its expiry date," he told an enthusiastic crowd of thousands who waved Turkish and Erdogan campaign flags and chanted his name.
Opinion polls put Erdogan, 60, far ahead of his two rivals who are competing for a five-year term as president. Parliament has in the past chosen the head of state but this was changed under a law pushed through by Erdogan's government.
He has set his sights on serving two presidential terms, keeping him in power past 2023, the 100th anniversary of the secular republic. For a leader who refers frequently to Ottoman history in his speeches, the date has special significance.
The prime minister has vowed to exercise the full powers granted to him by current laws, unlike his predecessors who have played a mainly ceremonial role. But he also plans to change the constitution to establish a fully executive presidency.
The constitution, written under military rule following a 1980 coup, enables him to chair cabinet meetings and appoint the prime minister and members of top judicial bodies, including the constitutional court and supreme council of judges.
Opinion polls have put Erdogan's support at 55-56 percent, giving him the majority he needs to win on Sunday. If there is no outright winner, a second round will be held on Aug. 24.
Surveys put him some 20 points ahead of the main opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Selahattin Demirtas, head of the pro-Kurdish left-wing People's Democratic Party, is seen winning just short of 10 percent of the vote.