ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for a decade, said he would quit as leader of the AK Party should it lose a general election due by July next year.
The outcome of the election is uncertain, and a national referendum on the government’s proposed constitutional reforms, set for September 12, could determine whether the momentum is with or against Erdogan.
An opinion poll on Wednesday showed for the first time voters narrowly rejecting the reforms in the referendum. “If my party ranks second in the 2011 elections — which I do not see happening — I will step down from the party leadership,” Erdogan, who has held the premiership since 2003, was quoted as saying by state-run Anatolian news agency.
“Why? Because I will hold myself responsible for such a result,” Erdogan said in the reported remarks made to a television channel in the Black Sea city of Trabzon on Wednesday.
Secularists view Erdogan, 56, with suspicion because of his past rooted in political Islam. But his government won grudging respect from people otherwise opposed to his party for leading Turkey into a period of unmatched prosperity and economic growth.
A deep recession, induced by the global financial crisis, caused support for the AK to waver last year. But a robust recovery could carry it through to a third consecutive victory by the time the country goes to vote.
Erdogan says the constitutional reforms are needed to bolster democracy in Turkey. Critics suspect the AK Party of seeking to gain control over the judiciary.
The opinion poll, carried out by the pollsters Sonar for the nationalist and anti-government Sozcu newspaper, produced a “no” vote of 50.87 percent and a “yes” vote of 49.13 percent. An opinion poll a month ago also pointed to an even split in votes.
The Sonar survey went on to show the AK Party ahead of its rivals based on general election voting preferences, with a 37.2 percent of the vote, followed by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) with 31.2 percent.
The survey also showed 35.45 percent of the people trusted the prime minister.
Erdogan’s blunt ways and strong leadership style have made many Turks doubt whether he would easily give up power. There has been speculation he could at some stage seek the presidency, currently held by his former foreign minister, Abdullah Gul.
Turkey’s presidents were formerly elected by parliament but are now elected directly by voters.
The country is deeply divided between an old secular establishment and a rising conservative middle class who voted the AK into power after a financial crisis in 2000/01.
The party, which depicts itself as a Muslim version of Europe’s conservative Christian Democrat parties, began formal negotiations to join the European Union in 2005.
It has enacted a swathe of economic and political reforms, including measures to reduce the powers of the staunchly secular military, which carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured an Islamist-led government into quitting in 1997.
Reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Mark Heinrich