By Orhan Coskun
ANKARA (Reuters) - A majority of deputies in Turkey's ruling AK Party have voted in a secret ballot in favor of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan running in the country's first direct presidential election in August, senior party officials said on Thursday.
The vote was meant as an informal test of the level of support within the party for a presidential bid by Erdogan, which would mean him stepping down as party leader, but he alone will decide on his candidacy, his aides have said.
Erdogan, who has dominated politics for more than a decade, has made little secret of his ambition to run for the presidency and his party's strong showing in local elections last month, despite a corruption scandal dogging his inner circle, has strengthened expectations he will do so.
But his aides have said his determination to press ahead with a fight against U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally he accuses of contriving the graft scandal as part of a plot to undermine him, could instead see him stay on for a fourth term as prime minister, currently a more powerful post.
Such a move would require the AK Party to vote to change its internal rules and remove a three-term limit for its parliamentary deputies, something to which Erdogan has repeatedly said he is in principle opposed.
"An overwhelming majority within the party says that Erdogan should become the president and the results of the voting have depicted that as well," a senior party official told Reuters after Wednesday's ballot of more than 300 AKP deputies.
"A small group said Erdogan should not run in the elections as there will be critical developments ahead during which his leadership will be much needed," the official said.
AK Party deputy chairman Huseyin Celik said on Wednesday that the party would hold a series of meetings on the presidential election culminating at the start of May, after which a decision would be announced.
(Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Jon Boyle)