ANKARA (Reuters) - A majority of deputies in Turkey's ruling AK Party have voted in a secret ballot in favour of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan running in the country's first direct presidential election in August, senior party officials said on Thursday.
The vote was meant as an informal test of the level of support within the party for a presidential bid by Erdogan, which would mean him stepping down as party leader, but he alone will decide on his candidacy, his aides have said.
Erdogan, who has dominated politics for more than a decade, has made little secret of his ambition to run for the presidency and his party's strong showing in local elections last month, despite a corruption scandal dogging his inner circle, has strengthened expectations he will do so.
But his aides have said his determination to press ahead with a fight against U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally he accuses of contriving the graft scandal as part of a plot to undermine him, could instead see him stay on for a fourth term as prime minister, currently a more powerful post.
Such a move would require the AK Party to vote to change its internal rules and remove a three-term limit for its parliamentary deputies, something to which Erdogan has repeatedly said he is in principle opposed.
"An overwhelming majority within the party says that Erdogan should become the president and the results of the voting have depicted that as well," a senior party official told Reuters after Wednesday's ballot of more than 300 AKP deputies.
"A small group said Erdogan should not run in the elections as there will be critical developments ahead during which his leadership will be much needed," the official said.
AK Party deputy chairman Huseyin Celik said on Wednesday that the party would hold a series of meetings on the presidential election culminating at the start of May, after which a decision would be announced.
Incumbent President Abdullah Gul was the second choice of presidential nominee in the secret ballot, officials said. Gul is a close Erdogan ally and co-founder of the party, and is tipped as a possible prime minister should Erdogan run.
Until now, parliament has elected Turkey's head of state. Erdogan has said the popular vote would confer additional authority on the currently largely ceremonial post, although he ultimately wants an executive presidency for Turkey.
"If I step into the presidency post, I would be the people's president. I would use my full competencies," Erdogan was quoted by the daily Hurriyet newspaper as telling MPs at Wednesday's meeting, adding that he had not yet decided on a bid.
He also signalled that whatever happened, the fight would continue against Gulen's Hizmet ("Service") network - which wields influence in state institutions including the police and judiciary and whose followers say they number in the millions.
Erdogan accuses what he describes as a "parallel state" of orchestrating the corruption scandal against him, including by illegally wiretapping thousands of government phones over years and leaking manipulated recordings on social media.
Erdogan relied on Hizmet's influence to break the grip on politics of the army, which carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980 and forced an Islamist-led government from power in 1997. But he now casts the feud with Hizmet as a continuation of that struggle against tutelage in any form.
"Whether I remain as the prime minister or become the president, the fight against the parallel structure and gangs will continue," he was quoted as saying.
(Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Jon Boyle)