Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looms over Turkish political life, a combative figure with a gift for oratory who talks about building a "Great Turkey" by 2023, the country's 100th birthday. Some analysts believe he wants to stay in power until then, an outsized goal that raises concerns about democracy in NATO's biggest Muslim ally.
The prospect of Erdogan revamping government and ruling for about two decades, dating from his party's first election victory in 2002, could make him one of the most transformational leaders since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the war hero who forged the nation at the chaotic end of the Ottoman Empire and ruled for 15 years until his death in 1938.
Erdogan, 57, is far from securing the legendary status of Ataturk, who imposed a secularist vision and is buried in a huge mausoleum on a hill in the capital, Ankara. But the prime minister, a former Istanbul mayor and semipro football player, is a brash, charismatic figure with a tight grip on a political machine likely to deliver a third term for his government in June 12 elections.
Under Erdogan, the government has reduced the political clout of the military and steered Turkey toward strong economic growth and a higher diplomatic profile in the region. However, critics suggest the government has sought to consolidate its authority at the expense of reforms inspired by Turkey's bid, now stalled, to join the European Union.
Known for blunt pronouncements, the prime minister has been coy about his possible role in politics in 2023, only adding to speculation about his intentions. In an interview with veteran anchorman Ali Kirca on Turkey's ShowTV on May 1, he parried repeated questions about his personal plans.
"Just as you have the right to ask me any question you like, I reserve my right not to answer this one," he said with a smile.
He did, however, say the government could become more democratic and effective if power is shifted to the Turkish presidency, a post that he can seek after his tenure as prime minister ends. Currently, the presidency has some veto authority but is largely removed from daily politics.
In one scenario, Erdogan wins a third four-year term as prime minister next month, his last because ruling party guidelines bar him from four consecutive terms; introduces a presidential system in a referendum; and runs for the five-year presidency twice, the legal limit, in a popular vote.
That would carry him past the milestone of 2023, giving him time to preside over a sweeping agenda aimed at elevating Turkey's global stature.
A presidential system could, in theory, contribute to democracy by dispersing power in Turkey, where the prime minister commands the unswerving loyalty of hand-picked legislators and the administration oversees the budget. Some commentators fear Erdogan would balk at the checks and balances of a U.S.-style presidency, fashioning instead a system closer to the model in Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has broad powers.
"We don't know what the prime minister means when he talks about the presidency. He hasn't defined that," said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul. "It looks like an authoritarian idea."
There does not appear to be consensus within the ruling Justice and Development Party. Some loyalists favor the idea, but Abdullah Gul, the current president and a former foreign minister who is closely allied with Erdogan, said he has "reservations" about a presidential system. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said he favors the parliamentary system unless the Turkish public decides otherwise.
The debate highlights concerns about Erdogan, whose bold, cajoling style helped push through changes early in his tenure but is now seen by some as domineering and incompatible with democracy. Also, deep suspicion persists between those who favor the Muslim character of the government and those within the secular establishment who resent it.
Despite these problems, Erdogan has pressed ahead with a grand vision. Last month, he announced plans to build a new waterway to the Black Sea as an alternative to the traffic-clogged Bosporus Strait, and he also wants Turkey to become one of the world's 10 largest economies. The target date for both goals is 2023, when Turks hold extravagant celebrations to commemorate the founding of their nation.
"It's very easy to extrapolate the probability that he wants to be ruling Turkey until then," said Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News who plans to publish a book this year about Islam and liberalism. He said, though, that Erdogan might not have a "very detailed road map" for his goals, and that becoming president in the current parliamentary system could be one option.
"Too much concentration of power in the hands of anybody is a problem," Akyol said. "A political system totally dominated by Erdogan will not be helpful."
In Turkey's current system, there is a tradition of prime ministers assuming the presidency. Turgut Ozal and Suleyman Demirel held both positions.
Burhan Kuzu, head of a parliamentary commission that is drafting a new constitution to replace one ratified in 1982 after a military coup, has studied the possibility of a presidential system that he says would combine elements of the American and French models. In France, the president and prime minister share administrative duties in what some describe as a semi-presidential system.
Kuzu envisions a system aimed partly at preserving a high degree of centralized power in Turkey, where Kurdish and other minority interests were traditionally seen as threats to national unity.
"The system that the United States has been using for years contains a federal system and an application of a full presidency. The model I have been working on for years is different from the one in the U.S.," Kuzu told CNNTurk television in March. "This model combines the unitary structure of the French system and the presidential authority of the U.S."
The ruling party has 331 seats in the 550-seat parliament, and some estimates predict it will return to power with a comfortable, if slightly smaller majority. The outcome will set the stage for Erdogan's plans to push through constitutional and other changes, including a possible presidential system.
"I am not talking about something that is unheard of in the world," he said earlier this year. "I believe a presidential system will yield more productive results."
Associated Press writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report.