ISTANBUL Turkey's first directly elected president will be a more powerful figure than the current largely ceremonial role, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was quoted on Tuesday as saying, boosting expectations he may run for the post in August.
Erdogan is barred by the rules of his ruling AK Party from standing for a fourth term as prime minister and, although the party could amend them with relative ease, he has made little secret of his ambition to become president.
The Islamist-rooted AK Party's strong showing in municipal polls last month, despite a graft scandal dogging the government and a damaging feud with an influential cleric, was seen by Erdogan's aides as a vote of confidence in his rule, taking him a step closer to a presidential bid in the August election.
"The president will be elected by the public for the first time, it's important in this sense," Erdogan was quoted as saying by the pro-government Sabah newspaper.
"The responsibilities will be different after these elections. It will not be a president of protocol, but one that sweats, runs around, works hard," he said.
Until now, Turkey's parliament has elected the head of state. The current president, Abdullah Gul, is a close Erdogan ally and co-founder of the AK Party. If Erdogan ran for the top job, Gul is tipped to replace him as prime minister.
Erdogan had long wanted to change the constitution and create an executive presidency, but political opposition to such a move has checked those plans for now.
That failure, as well as street protests last summer and the bitter feud with former ally Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric with influence in the police and judiciary, have raised questions over whether he will still run for the post.
There are also some doubts that Erdogan, for all his popularity among conservative AK Party voters, could win the 50 percent plus he would need in a second round as he is a divisive figure who would struggle to pick up opposition support.
Erdogan blames Gulen's Hizmet movement, whose members say they number in the millions, for contriving the corruption scandal to undermine him and illegally tapping thousands of phones, including his own, over a period of years.
He has vowed to hunt down those responsible "in their lair".
Authorities in the southeastern province of Adana searched police officers' homes in an investigation into the phone tapping, detaining eight officers, CNN Turk TV said on Tuesday.
Senior officials have said rooting out Gulen's influence is Erdogan's priority. If he does not run for president, they say, his party could alter its rules to let him stand again as premier in a parliamentary election next year in order to finish off that battle.
The government has already dismissed or reassigned thousands of police officers and tightened control over the Internet and judiciary in response to the corruption scandal.
It also blocked access to Twitter and YouTube after audio recordings, purportedly showing corruption in Erdogan's inner circle, were leaked on social media. Reuters has not been able to verify their authenticity.
The block on Twitter was lifted after the constitutional court ruled that it breached freedom of expression, but YouTube remains largely blocked as legal wrangling continues.
(Additional reporting by Seda Sezer; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones)