Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his candidacy yesterday for a more powerful presidency which rivals fear may entrench authoritarian rule and supporters, especially conservative Muslims, see as the crowning prize in his drive to reshape Nato member Turkey.
Supporters of the prime minister's ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party cheered, clapped and sang pro-Erdogan songs after deputy chairman Mehmet Ali Sahin announced the prime minister's widely expected candidacy in the August presidential election.
"We entered politics for Allah, we entered politics for the people," Erdogan told a crowd of thousands in an auditorium in Ankara, where the party faithful erupted into chants of "Turkey is proud of you".
Erdogan, hugely popular despite a graft scandal he blamed on traitors and terrorists, is very likely to win the August vote.
In so doing, he would bolster his executive powers after 11 years as prime minister that have seen him subdue a secularist judiciary and civil service and tame a once all-powerful army.
He has long sought a powerful presidency to escape the vagaries and obstacles of the current paliamentary system. Critics see in this a move to cast off remaining checks on his power.
"They called us regressive because we said our prayers," Erdogan said in a speech dotted with references to his faith.
"They said we weren't good enough to be a village leader, that we couldn't be prime minister, that we couldn't be elected president. They didn't even deign to see us as an equal person in the eyes of the state."
Erdogan, 60, offers himself as champion of a conservative religious population treated for generations as second-class citizens.
The enemy identified now in countless Erdogan speeches as "they" is a secularist establishment that dominated Turkey until he came to power. But many secular Turks in the broader population may increasingly feel the finger pointing at them.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, said Erdogan was polarising society.
"Someone who does not believe in the separation of powers cannot be a president," Kilicdaroglu told members of his secularist party in parliament. "Someone who does not believe in the supremacy of law, whose sense of justice has not developed cannot be a presidential candidate."