ANKARA Turkey's ruling AK Party decided on Friday to maintain a three-term limit for its deputies, the clearest signal yet that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will run in the nation's first direct election for president in August.
There has been speculation the AKP would change its rules to enable Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade, to stay on as prime minister for a fourth term and finish off a power struggle with an influential Islamic cleric he accuses of seeking to topple him.
But in a five-hour meeting to discuss election strategy, chaired by Erdogan, the party's executive board decided not to amend the three-term limit, an internal regulation which the prime minister himself has long publicly championed.
"It was decided appropriate to take no steps on the three-term rule," AKP spokesman Huseyin Celik said in a statement. Party consultations on strategy for the presidential election were continuing, he said.
Erdogan said in October he would run for the presidency if asked to do so by the party.
August's election will be the first popular vote for the presidency. Until now, the president has been chosen by parliament and played a largely ceremonial role. Erdogan has said that will give it more authority, and has vowed to exercise its full powers if elected.
But his failure to establish the executive presidency he had long coveted and a corruption scandal that has dogged his government since December had fuelled speculation that he may seek instead to stay as prime minister.
Erdogan has cast the graft scandal as a plot to oust him by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally with influence in the police and judiciary, whom he now accuses of seeking to seize the levers of state power. Gulen denies any such role.
"This is a big step towards Erdogan running for the presidency," a senior AK Party official told Reuters after Friday's meeting, but added that a final decision would not be announced before a broader party meeting due next weekend.
The three-term limit also means high-profile figures such as Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, Energy Minister Taner Yildiz and Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag cannot be re-appointed.
A second senior government official said Erdogan would be likely to keep such allies close should he ascend to the presidency, appointing them as special advisers on issues ranging from the economy to diplomacy and energy affairs.
"Turkey needs good advisers ... Erdogan will be able to function with his allies as an active president. He will not leave them behind," the official said.
"After that, the ministries will serve technical functions. But Erdogan will be across all the important issues for Turkey."
CONCENTRATION OF POWER
Erdogan's opponents fear that will concentrate too much power in the hands of a man who they say has shown increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
His crackdown on anti-government protests last summer and response to the graft scandal, purging the police and judiciary and seeking tighter control of the Internet and courts, have drawn criticism abroad as well as from opponents at home.
Erdogan had long wanted to change the constitution and create an executive presidency. Political opposition to such a move has checked those plans for now.
President Abdullah Gul, who is considered a more conciliatory figure than the prime minister and a check on Erdogan's autocratic impulses, had been seen as a potential future prime minister should Erdogan run for the presidency.
But relations between the two men, co-founders of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, have grown increasingly strained. Gul appeared to rule out the possibility of becoming prime minister last month, saying such a role swap would not be "appropriate" for a democracy.
Gul's absence could pave the way for a more malleable figure to assume the post should Erdogan win the presidency, enabling him to shift the balance of power towards the head of state even without a full presidential system.
AK Party Deputy Chairman Mehmet Ali Sahin, seen as staunch Erdogan loyalist and a fellow party founder, has been mooted as the most likely candidate.
Also at Friday's meeting, the AK Party said it would not, for now, go ahead with proposals to alter the voting system before parliamentary elections due in 2015.
The plans would have eliminated the current 10 percent threshold of votes needed for a party to enter parliament, among the highest in the world, and would have redefined electoral boundaries, in a way which party officials suggested could have helped boost the AKP's parliamentary majority.
(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Nick Tattersall, Editing by Larry King)