Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected late Sunday as leader of his Islamic-rooted party, securing his seat for three more years.
Erdogan faced no competition in the vote, which was held at a congress of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a sports arena with thousands of party members and guests in attendance.
It was Erdogan’s last congress as prime minister and party leader as AKP bylaws set a limit of three consecutive terms.
Erdogan, who is widely expected to run for the presidency in 2014, said in a speech often interrupted by applause that service was more important than titles.
The remark was interpreted as a strong sign that he wants to become the country’s first popularly elected president under a 2007 constitutional amendment setting a five-year presidential term, renewable once.
An advanced democracy
More than 100 foreign guests including Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani and Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas movement, attended the congress.
“We have shown everyone that an advanced democracy can exist in a predominantly Muslim country,” Erdogan told the congress. “We have become a role model for all Muslim countries.”
He vowed to forge a more diverse constitution and turn a new page in relations with Turkey’s 15 million Kurds, in a speech lasting almost two and half hours and meant to chart the AK Party’s agenda for the next decade.
"We called ourselves conservative democrats. We focused our change on basic rights and freedom," Erdogan told thousands of cheering party members at the congress in a sports stadium in the capital Ankara.
"This stance has gone beyond our country’s borders and has become an example for all Muslim countries."
Under Erdogan’s autocratic grip, the AKP has won three consecutive landslide election victories since 2002, ending a history of fragile coalition governments punctuated by military coups and marking Turkey’s longest period of single-party government for more than half a century.
Per capita income has nearly tripled in that time and Turkey has re-established itself as a regional power, with its allies seeing its mix of democratic stability and Islamic culture as a potential role model in a volatile region.
"Turkey has shown the bright face of Islam," Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s leader in exile, told the congress. "Erdogan, you are not only a leader in Turkey now, you are a leader in the Muslim world as well."
But critics accuse Erdogan of an authoritarian approach, saying that he stifles dissent and uses the courts to silence his enemies. They also say he has failed to bring any hope of an end to a 28-year-old conflict in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
The crisis in neighboring Syria has thrust Turkey to the forefront of international diplomacy, with Washington seeing it as the key player in supporting the Syrian opposition and planning for the era after President Bashar al-Assad.
Erdogan renewed his criticism of Russia, China and Iran, which have backed Assad in the 18-month uprising, saying history would "not forgive those who stand by oppressors".
Egypt’s Mursi echoed the sentiments, telling the congress that a quartet of regional powers consisting of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would continue to push for a solution.
"We will not be calm, we will not settle down until this bloodshed stops and until the will of the Syrian people to choose their own leader is realized," he said.
Erdogan favors switching to a presidential form of government similar to France’s. It is an open secret that he covets the post himself, since under party rules he cannot seek another term as premier at the next parliamentary election in 2015.
He gave no hints on his political future beyond saying he would "do whatever job is given to me."
Opponents worry about Erdogan tightening his grip. Hundreds of politicians, academics and journalists are on trial accused of plotting against the government, while more than 300 army officers were handed long jail terms this month for an alleged bid to topple him almost a decade ago.