By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan heckled the head of the country's bar association on Saturday, accusing him of rudeness for speaking critically of the government at a judicial ceremony before storming out of the hall.
Tensions between Erdogan and his political foes remain high after bitterly contested local elections in March that Erdogan's ruling AK Party won and amid expectations he will seek the presidency in an election in August.
Erdogan has had a difficult year that included the biggest anti-government protests in decades against his perceived authoritarianism and a corruption scandal that implicated family members and cabinet ministers.
His response, a sweeping shakeup of the police and judiciary, prompted accusations of political meddling. He says he is rooting out shadowy forces trying to undermine his rule.
Erdogan interrupted a speech in Ankara by Metin Feyzioglu, chairman of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, saying his remarks were political and full of untruths.
Feyzioglu had called for a more independent judiciary and questioned the government's handling of the aftermath of a 2011 earthquake that killed more than 600 people in the southeastern province of Van.
"You are speaking falsehoods ... How could there be such rudeness?" Erdogan shouted and stood up to gesticulate in anger at Feyzioglu, who was on stage at a podium and refused to stop speaking. The scene was broadcast by CNN Turk television.
Erdogan also expressed frustration that Feyzioglu, who has also been an outspoken critic of the criminal prosecution of the government's foes, had broken with protocol by speaking for an hour at the ceremony marking the anniversary of the founding of the Council of State, Turkey's top administrative court.
It was an unusual outburst for Erdogan, Turkey's most popular leader in half a century, whose tough image is part of his appeal for many Turks.
CRITICISM OF JUDICIARY
Last month, the head of the Constitutional Court denounced elected officials' "excessive" political criticism of his tribunal in a speech attended by Erdogan, who remained stonily silent but said later he was "saddened" by Chief Justice Hasim Kilic's words.
At the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Erdogan left the stage after clashing with Israeli President Shimon Peres in what would augur a split between the two allied nations that persists today.
The Council of State released a statement saying Feyzioglu spoke four times longer than his allotted time, and: "By giving so much space to matters that have nothing to do with administrative justice nor the legal profession, guests, who had no opportunity to respond, were made uncomfortable."
Three-time premier Erdogan has yet to announce a run for the presidency, but his interest in the top job is widely accepted.
At a meeting of the AK Party later on Saturday, Erdogan said the party would present a candidate by the middle of June or before, later than he had initially said.
Burhan Kuzu, the head of parliament's constitutional committee, was quoted by HaberTurk newspaper's website as saying the law does not require Erdogan to resign from his current position to run for president.
Though largely ceremonial, the presidency is still the nation's most prestigious post and was held by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
"If you love politics so much, then take off your (judicial) robe, enter the political arena and prove yourself," Erdogan said of Feyzioglu at an AK Party meeting in comments aired live by CNN Turk.
(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Janet Lawrence)