ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Anyone watching the multitude of Turkish television stations broadcasting President Tayyip Erdogan’s speeches on an almost daily basis might be forgiven for thinking he was the one standing in a June election.
His lobbying for the ruling AK Party ahead of the parliamentary election and interference in government affairs while holding what has long been a ceremonial post is raising the hackles of senior ministers and exposing fractures in the party he founded more than a decade ago.
It is also damaging the separation of powers enshrined in Turkey’s constitution.
“We love our president. We’re aware of his power and the good service he gives to our nation. But there is a government in this country,” a clearly exasperated Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said on Sunday, after Erdogan criticized the government’s handling of a peace process with Kurdish militants.
“Our nation would like to see a powerful government, a powerful decision-making mechanism. Nobody has the right to cast a shadow on this,” he said, promising to defend Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, also a member of the AK Party, from “any danger that could tarnish him”.
Erdogan has already stretched the powers of the presidency since being elected last August, chairing two cabinet meetings and lecturing the central bank on economic policy.
Now his domineering presence, wielding power from a vast new palace complex as political parties gear up for campaigning, is riding roughshod over a constitutional ban on the head of state engaging in party politics, critics say.
“I’m not running on June 7. But I am explaining my targets and sharing my projects for Turkey. This is how you serve the nation, according to my understanding,” he said in a speech in the western city of Denizli over the weekend.
It was a typical Erdogan affair.
Ostensibly a “collective opening ceremony” for 41 municipal projects - similar events in the past have included taxi ranks and university dormitories - it quickly turned into a podium speech on the need for stronger presidential powers.
“The agenda for the June 7 elections should be a new Turkey. And to build a new Turkey we need an executive presidential system,” he told thousands in the city’s main square. “I’m not just a showroom model,” he said in a later dinner speech.
That new Turkey is already growing more authoritarian, his opponents say. Dozens have faced legal action for insulting Erdogan since be became president, including a university student for a tweet and a 13-year-old for a Facebook post.
Erdogan wants the AK Party to raise the number of parliament seats it holds to 400 of 550 in June, comfortably giving it the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution and create a presidential system without a referendum.
Under the current constitution, the head of state must be politically impartial and not belong to any one party. What Turkey has now under Erdogan, who founded the AK Party and was prime minister for 11 years before winning the presidency last August, is an awkward compromise.
He has appeared to seek to impose his will on the list of candidates standing in June vote in a bid to maintain influence over the party.
Earlier this month, once of his closest confidants was swiftly reappointed as intelligence chief after Erdogan opposed his resignation to run for parliament. Had Hakan Fidan gone through with his election bid, he could have become a powerful ally to Davutoglu and a potential check on Erdogan’s influence.
“The Fidan episode certainly suggests that Erdogan still has significant clout. He seems to have a tremendous amount of say in choosing candidates for seats and it’s likely to be his party after the election,” said Howard Eissenstat, Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in New York.
He also has huge popular support among religious conservatives, who see his rise as the crowning achievement of a drive to reshape Turkey and break the hold of a secular elite.
Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek, a staunch Erdogan loyalist, published 31 tweets on Monday criticizing Arinc, who holds influence over an old guard in the AK Party and is government spokesman, saying he no longer represented the party.
“In the end it’d be very difficult to have an effective party rebellion against someone whose position is secure ... and who has captured the imagination of such a large part of their base,” Eissenstat said. “The frustration is palpable.”
Senior officials acknowledge Erdogan’s desire to be involved in every decision is causing tension between the palace and government, but forecast it would calm after the election.
“Davutoglu will come out successfully from this election and prevail. A balance will be restored between him and Erdogan. Erdogan wants an executive presidency but it’s not something that will happen overnight,” one government official said.
Those close to Erdogan and Davutoglu say they see themselves on a historic mission to reshape the Turkish republic and that such spats are little more than twists in the road. But others fear the damage to Turkish institutions will be irreparable.
“It’s a dangerous thing when politicians move from thinking about governance to thinking about legacy,” Eissenstat said.
Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker and Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall