Turkey's ruling party to hold major congress

September 29, 2012 - 7:34 AM

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's governing party is holding a major congress this weekend to pick new leaders and try to build on a decade-long record of electoral success, economic growth and a rising regional profile.

At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces challenges, including a sharp rise in attacks by Kurdish militants, as well as the potentially destabilizing effect of the war in neighboring Syria, which has sent more than 80,000 refugees fleeing to camps in Turkey.

Erdogan says he will announce a shake-up of his Justice and Development Party at the meeting on Sunday. He plans to designate officials to steer the party to local, presidential and general elections in the next three years and outline policy goals leading up to the country's centenary in 2023.

It is Erdogan's last congress because party guidelines bar members from holding posts for more than three consecutive terms. But Erdogan is widely expected to run for presidential elections in 2014 when, observers say, he could hand over the party's reins to a trusted confidant and retain some control over both the running of the party and government.

The prime minister has said he favors changing Turkey's political system to a strong presidential one similar to that of the United States, although opposition leaders and even some ruling party loyalists have balked at the idea of an all-powerful presidency.

Foreign dignitaries who are expected to attend the congress at a sports arena in the capital, Ankara, include Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi.

Mehmet Yegin, a researcher at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization, said the success of Turkey's ruling party serves as a source of inspiration for countries in the region that have shed authoritarian leaders in the wave of uprisings known as the Arab Spring. "The party's economic record is alluring to these countries," Yegin said.

The Justice and Development Party, born out of Turkey's Islamic movement, swept to power in 2002 on the heels of an economic crisis and went on to win elections by commanding margins in 2007 and 2011. It maintained the country's system of secular politics, but undercut the political power of the military, which had staged three coups since the 1960s and forced an Islamist government out of office in 1997.

Turkey has often been cited as a model for the coexistence of Islam and democracy, though democratic reforms slowed in the second half of the ruling party's tenure.