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Internet Freedom Debate Stokes Rivalry Between Turkey's Top Two


Turkey has seen its share of political controversies lately, including large protests and a government ban of Twitter. Despite that, the ruling party appears to be maintaining its popularity. But now it may face a split in its highest ranks. There's competition brewing between its two main figures: President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul that many are wary of Erdogan's growing power.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Turkey is in the midst of a three-round electoral contest. And round one, local elections, clearly went to Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP, or AK Party, with roots in political Islam. Erdogan's government was rocked by large street protests and a high-level corruption scandal and provoked outrage by blocking Twitter and YouTube.

Opponents thought they saw an opening, but as Erdogan ally Bilal Macit told Al Jazeera English, they miscalculated.

BILAL MACIT: And the results show us that we passed the vote. And the results show us that people support Prime Minister Erdogan and people support AK Party, and our both domestic and foreign policies.

KENYON: Now the country turns to a presidential election this August, followed by parliamentary elections next year. Out among the voters, the meaning of the local vote is less categorical.


KENYON: As the wakes of passing ships splash the European banks of the Bosphorus, and vendors hawk the ubiquitous Turkish snacks known as simit, 43-year-old Galip Erturk watches his children play in a small park. He says the question now is whether Erdogan is unbeatable as a presidential candidate. Erturk has two candidates he likes better. The incumbent, Abdullah Gul, considered more moderate, and a relatively new voice on the scene, Constitutional Court Chief Hasim Kelic.

GALIP ERTURK: (Through Translator) I like Gul because he seems much more interested in making good decisions. He evaluates things carefully and doesn't just make snap judgments. If not him, then Judge Hasim Kelic because he embodies justice.

KENYON: Kelic's profile has risen sharply in recent weeks, as the Constitutional Court struck down the government's ban on Twitter and then overturned part of a controversial law that critics say gives the government undue influence over the judiciary.

Yavuz Baydar, columnist and co-founder of the independent media outlet P24, says with the liberal opposition divided and weak, Turks worried about Erdogan's growing authoritarian tendencies have only one place left to turn.

YAVUZ BAYDAR: The Constitutional Court, which is seemingly the only remaining independent institution able to challenge Erdogan's quest for more power. And we saw this as a very clear sign when the High Court issued the Twitter ruling, which was a precedent - pro-freedom. And it already created very strong dismay with Erdogan, as well as many other key figures of the AKP.

KENYON: Baydar says while in some countries a divisive election is followed by a period of healing, Erdogan's victory hasn't had that effect.

BAYDAR: In a reverse manner, some argue, it has even increased his appetite for attacking whoever he sees as opposition. This may end up in criminalization of opposition, in Eastern European manner or Caucasian manner, and also cracking down on whatever remains of the independent media.

KENYON: Analysts say there are a number of possible scenarios. Erdogan and Gul could trade places but would the prime minister remain the more powerful post? Or would Erdogan push to beef up the presidency? And Erdogan could try to maneuver Gul out of the prime minister's job in favor of someone more loyal.


KENYON: As her husband takes a turn with the kids, 43-year-old Zehra Erturk says speculating about those at the top is fine but she wonders who's going to watch out for ordinary Turks?

ZEHRA ERTURK: (Through Translator) Of course, it worries us. A couple of years ago, we were happy and optimistic. But now I wake up wondering if today's the day my husband will lose his job. Because all these scandals, companies can be hurt and if he's laid off, how do we pay the rent? It's very worrying.

KENYON: Adding to the worries of Erdogan's critics is the fact that he may not be forced to change jobs at all. His three-term limit is not in the constitution. All he has to do is change his party's by-laws and he can run for and likely win a fourth term as prime minister.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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