Turkey's Erdogan prepares for strongman president role

Fulya Ozerkan , with Stuart Williams in Istanbul

Ankara (AFP) - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday prepared for the challenge of leading Turkey into his promised "new era" as a strongman president following his election win, as his party began to set up the transfer of power.

As premier since 2003, Erdogan has sought to modernise Turkey and take a more assertive position on the global stage but is seen by opponents as an increasingly authoritarian figure with a desire to Islamise Turkish society.

He is now to become the country's first ever directly elected president after Sunday's election win, with his inauguration set for August 28. He could well serve two five-year terms, staying in power until 2024.

Attention will now turn to who becomes the next prime minister to take the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) into 2015 legislative elections.

AKP spokesman Huseyin Celik announced that the party would hold an extraordinary congress on August 27 one day before the inauguration to agree a new prime minister to replace Erdogan.

This means that Erdogan -- who clearly has no desire to take even the smallest break -- will stay in his current post until the very last moment when he takes the presidency from incumbent Abdullah Gul.

"We will agree on a name based on common sense," Celik said, adding that a meeting of top AKP members on Monday had not discussed names.

Erdogan won 51.79 percent of the vote, the main opposition challenger Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu 38.44 percent and Kurdish candidate Selahattin Demirtas 9.76 percent, according to a final total vote count.

Turnout was 74.12 percent, a figure that would be considered high in many countries but was sharply down on the 89 percent recorded in Turkey's local elections in March.

- Gul to rejoin AKP -

The Cumhuriyet daily said Erdogan's failure to win more than 55 percent, as hoped by his strategists, had shifted the thinking within the AKP about the new premier.

There were now growing voices for Gul -- seen as a moderate and conciliatory figure -- to take the post, it said.

Gul announced on Tuesday he would return to the AKP after leaving the presidency. In line with Turkish law he had severed all ties with the party he helped to found when he took the post.

"I am president until August 28 and after this it is only natural for me to return to my party," Gul told reporters in Ankara.

His comment intensified speculation Gul may take the premiership and appeared to douse speculation of a public split with Erdogan.

The other option is Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an influential figure and firm Erdogan loyalist who would be likely to do his master's bidding.

As Erdogan prepares to beef up the powers of the president -- which in recent years has been a largely ceremonial role -- he may have to tread more carefully after a victory that was weaker than expected.

"It will have implications for the way he approaches the new presidency, it would have to be more cautious," said Ali Carkoglu, professor at Koc University in Istanbul.

Erdogan is seeking a more US-style executive presidency but this will prove tricky within the limits of the current constitution. The AKP has vowed to seek a new basic law after the 2015 polls.

"If the head of this new regime makes decisions that are against the constitution, we will live in an environment of constant volatility, with constitutional crisis ahead," warned Kadri Gursel, a columnist in the Milliyet newspaper.

Debt ratings agency Fitch said the result "does little to ameliorate the political risk" to Turkey's credit profile.

In his victory speech delivered from the balcony of the AKP Ankara headquarters, Erdogan emphasised reconciliation after a sometimes bitter campaign.

"Today we are closing an era and taking the first step for a new era," he said.

- 'Distinct advantage' -

OSCE observers highlighted the "imbalanced media coverage" during the campaign, and said there was a "distinct advantage" for Erdogan, whose advertising dominated television and billboards.

Before his first term as president is over, Erdogan will have been in power longer than Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish state in 1923 and is still hailed as the national hero.

Many secular Turks bitterly accuse Erdogan of squandering Ataturk's legacy with a gradual move to Islamise the country and impose one-man rule.

Their anger erupted in deadly 2013 protests sparked by plans to build a shopping mall on the site of Gezi Park in central Istanbul.

In his victory speech, Erdogan called on opponents who label him a "dictator" to question themselves instead of criticising him.

In a joint statement, EU council president Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso called on Erdogan to maintain the presidency's traditional "conciliatory role".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also congratulated Erdogan, saying their countries had to work together to bring peace to a troubled region.