Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 156

Following the election of a known moderate to the post of Turkish parliamentary speaker, attention has now switched to the forthcoming vote for the presidency, amid signs of an intensifying power struggle within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

In the election in parliament on August 9, Koksal Toptan received the support of 450 of the 535 deputies who cast votes, comfortably clear of the two-thirds majority needed. A trained lawyer and career politician, the 64 year-old Toptan served as a minister in the coalition governments of the 1990s when he was a member of the center right True Path Party (DYP). In 2002 he successfully stood for parliament for the AK Party from the western Black Sea mining town of Zonguldak (CNNTurk, August 9). A political moderate whose wife does not wear the Islamic headscarf, Toptan received the support not only of his fellow AK Party deputies but also of most of the members of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP).

In the Turkish state protocol, the speaker of parliament ranks second after the country’s president, for whom he or she deputizes when the latter is out of the country. However, it is a position with more status than power. In practice, the speaker’s duties primarily consist of chairing debates in parliament and ensuring that parliamentary rules and regulations are observed. Nevertheless, the position was frequently associated with controversy under Toptan’s predecessor, Bulent Arinc, who served as speaker from November 2002 until the elections of July 2007. One of the leaders of the hard-line Islamist faction in the AK Party, Arinc’s abrasive outspokenness often antagonized Turkish secularists. The fact that his wife wears an Islamic headscarf meant that the rigorously secularist Turkish military consistently boycotted any official receptions hosted by Arinc at which they believed she would be present.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s choice of Toptan as the AK Party’s candidate for parliamentary speaker has thus reduced the possibility of the post becoming a source of tension with the military. Similarly, although Toptan is respected within the party, he is not a leader of a particular faction, and he is not expected to use the speaker’s high public profile as a platform from which to apply pressure on Erdogan to change government policy, as was frequently the case with Arinc.

However, the appointment of a known moderate as speaker has led to speculation that it may now be more difficult for Erdogan to prevent Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul from putting himself forward as a candidate for the presidency (Turkish Daily News, August 10). Toptan’s first task as speaker will be to initiate the process by which parliament will elect the successor to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. The first round of voting is expected to be held on August 20. If none of the candidates receive the support of two-thirds of the deputies, a second round of voting will be held on August 24 and a possible third round – in which a simple majority will be sufficient – on August 28.

Gul has considerable support within the AK Party, including from hard-line Islamists. Gul’s wife not only covers her head, but she once took Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights over its ban on women wearing headscarves in state institutions. However, others in the AK Party fear that Gul’s appointment as president could create domestic instability by raising tensions and antagonizing the Turkish military.

Erdogan is believed to favor appointing a compromise candidate to the presidency. He has clearly been taken by surprise by Gul’s refusal to back down. But he has avoided publicly supporting or opposing Gul, in the apparent hope that Gul will withdraw of his own accord. Erdogan and Gul, often together with Arinc, have held a series of private meetings to try to resolve the issue but without result (Radikal, August 9).

The power struggle has mostly taken place behind closed doors and through anonymous comments to the Turkish media by sources close to the two men. Gul’s supporters remain adamant that he has no intention of withdrawing and point to the AK Party’s landslide election victory on July 22 as an endorsement of his candidacy after his previous attempt to run for president in April 2007 was derailed by intervention from the Turkish military, precipitating the elections (Milliyet, August 9).

Erdogan’s supporters have responded by commenting that, in order to govern effectively, the AK Party needs to avoid tensions and instability. On August 9, an article in the pro-AK Party daily Yeni Safak pointedly commented that on July 22 the electorate had voted not for Gul’s presidency but for a continuation of the stability and economic growth that had characterized the AK Party’s first term in power (Yeni Safak, August 9). The article was written by Yasin Dogan, which is widely understood to be the penname of one of Erdogan’s closest advisors. The article was greeted with delight by the AK Party’s opponents (Hurriyet, August 10) and outrage by Gul’s supporters. On August 10 “Yasin Dogan” wrote another article in Yeni Safak claiming that he had been misunderstood and that he had considerable respect for Gul. But the article stopped short of endorsing his candidacy for the forthcoming presidential election (Yeni Safak, August 10).

There is little doubt that Erdogan is in an unenviable position. If he forces Gul to step down, he will antagonize many in the AK Party. If he allows Gul to stand, then not only will he risk tensions and a reaction from the military, but he will have lost the current power struggle. For a politician whose charisma is based on his assertiveness and “political machismo,” it would be a major blow.