Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 158

On August 13, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) opted for confrontation rather than conciliation by announcing that Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul will be its candidate in Turkey’s forthcoming presidential election (NTV, CNNTurk, August 13).

The announcement put an end to weeks of speculation about whether the party would risk another standoff with Turkey’s secular establishment after an attempt in April to elect Gul as president resulted in the AKP being forced to hold an early general election on July 22. Many Turkish secularists, including the country’s powerful military, suspect that Gul, who has spent most of his political career in explicitly Islamist political parties, still harbors an Islamist agenda. Gul’s wife wears an Islamic headscarf and hard-line secularists maintain that a headscarfed first lady would, in itself, violate the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution.

Under Turkish law, the president is elected by parliament. The candidate requires the support of two-thirds of the 550 MPs in the unicameral assembly in the first two rounds of voting, falling to a simple majority in subsequent rounds. On May 1, the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that in order for the vote to be valid, at least two-thirds of MPs must attend each vote. The opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which has 70 seats, has already indicated that it will participate in the vote. As the AKP has 341 deputies, Gul is thus expected to be elected in the third round of voting, which is currently scheduled for August 28 (Hurriyet, Milliyet, Radikal, August 14).

In the weeks preceding the announcement of Gul’s candidacy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had repeatedly given him the opportunity to stand down but, wary of the support for Gul’s candidacy in the AKP, had not dared to tell him explicitly to withdraw. Sources close to Erdogan told Jamestown that the AKP should be focusing on governing and tackling a string of domestic and foreign policy issues without having to deal with the tensions that might result from Gul’s candidacy. But Gul remained obdurate. In the end, Erdogan backed down and endorsed Gul’s candidacy (Milliyet, August 14).

Although Erdogan’s standing in the party is such that his position as leader is unchallengeable, Gul’s candidacy nevertheless represents a major defeat and the first challenge to his authority since the party was founded in August 2001. It has also seriously damaged Erdogan’s personal credibility. In May hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets in the largest mass rallies in Turkish history to demonstrate their opposition to Gul becoming president. In the aftermath of the AKP’s landslide election victory on July 22, Erdogan promised to listen to those who had not voted for the AKP and to propose a conciliatory candidate for the presidency after consultations with the other parties in parliament (see EDM, July 23). No such consultations took place.

The combination of summer heat and vacation season is likely to prevent a repeat of May’s mass demonstrations in the near future. The assumption among AKP supporters is that Gul will be elected on August 28 and that those who are opposed to him becoming president will simply have to get used to the fact (Today’s Zaman, August 13). This is dangerously naïve. The public protests in May highlighted a worrying polarization of Turkish society between supporters and opponents of the AKP. Regardless of which side represents the numerical majority, each is large enough that both have to compromise in order to avoid a deepening of the divisions in Turkish society.

The AKP’s supporters have claimed, justifiably, that the secularists have shown little inclination to compromise (Yeni Safak, Zaman, August 13). But the AKP’s announcement of Gul’s candidacy and the manner in which it was done, without even paying lip service to consulting with other parties, have demonstrated a similar unwillingness on the part of the AKP.

Inevitably, attention now shifts to the Turkish military. On August 12, retired General Hilmi Ozkok, who stepped down as chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS) at the end of August 2006, warned against the election to the presidency of someone whose wife wears an Islamic headscarf and stated that he was certain that his successor, General Yasar Buyukanit, was “of the same mind” (Hurriyet, August 13).

In fact, when it comes to the protection of secularism, Buyukanit is known to be even more hard line than Ozkok. During Ozkok’s term as chief of the TGS, there were often tensions between the two men, because Buyukanit believed that Ozkok was not being assertive enough with the AKP.

But what Buyukanit and the rest of the TGS can and will do currently remain unclear. August is traditionally the month when the Turkish armed forces holds its annual round of appointments and promotions (see EDM, August 1, 6), meaning that around one-third of its officers are currently preparing to be transferred to new positions. It is also the time when many in the high command take their annual leave. On the weekend of August 11-12, Buyukanit himself was photographed enjoying a brief vacation in the Mediterranean resort of Bodrum (Hurriyet, August 12).

However, there is no doubt that the TGS will be holding high-level meetings to discuss its response to the possibility of Gul becoming president. The high command is aware that, given the strength of opposition to the AKP in the lower ranks of the military, it will have to be seen to be doing something, if only to preserve internal unity. This may take the form of a high-profile public statement warning that the TGS will not allow any compromise on the principle of secularism. But the TGS may also adopt a longer-term approach and a lower public profile, including a campaign of attrition within the government apparatus. In any case, the military is unlikely to stand by and do nothing.