On August 16, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer publicly humiliated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the first move in what is likely to be a long war of attrition between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkey’s ruling secular military and bureaucratic elite following the AKP’s choice of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate to succeed Sezer.
In addition to harboring doubts about Gul’s commitment to secularism, many Turkish secularists are appalled by the prospect of his wife, Hayrinusa, who wears an Islamic headscarf, becoming the country’s first lady. After weeks of prevarication, the AKP finally named Gul as its candidate for the presidency on August 13, gambling that its landslide victory in the July 22 general election would make it immune to any attempted intervention by Turkey’s secular establishment (see EDM, August 14).
On the afternoon of August 16, Erdogan arrived at the presidential palace to submit the list of the members of his new cabinet to Sezer for his ratification. Sezer returned the list to Erdogan and told him to give it to the new president, leaving a tense and bewildered Erdogan to explain what had happened to a horde of journalists and television cameras waiting outside (NTV, August 16). Extraordinarily, pro-AKP newspapers tried to claim that Sezer was doing Erdogan a favor by sparing him the humiliation of Sezer possibly vetoing some of his cabinet appointments (Today’s Zaman, August 17). However, the date and time of Erdogan’s visit to the presidential palace had been made public days in advance. Erdogan is known to have spent many hours drawing up his list of ministers and has repeatedly and publicly stated that he is anxious for the new cabinet to assume its responsibilities as soon as possible. After all, Sezer could simply have telephoned Erdogan and told him not to come. Even if everything goes smoothly for the AKP, Gul is not expected to be appointed president until August 28 at the earliest.
Sezer’s public humiliation of Erdogan came two days after the AKP had launched a propaganda campaign to try to soften the resistance of the country’s secular establishment to Gul’s candidacy for the presidency.
On August 14, after formally registering himself as a candidate, Gul held a press conference at which he repeatedly pledged his commitment to the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution (Radikal, August 15). He promised that, if elected, he would immediately put aside any sympathy for the AKP and its political program and serve as an impartial president, equidistant from all political parties. However, such a pledge appears at odds with the AKP’s determination to support his candidacy.
On August 15, Gul embarked on a series of meetings with trade unions and business associations, ensuring that each was followed by a photo-opportunity and a brief statement reiterating his commitment to represent the entire Turkish nation rather than one particular constituency (Milliyet, August 16).
Earlier this year, on April 12, the Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit held a press conference at which he declared that any president should be committed to secularism “not only in word but in deed” (Radikal, April 13). On the afternoon of August 15, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan held a press conference to endorse Gul’s bid for the presidency and, in a clear message to the TGS, promise that Gul’s “words and deeds” were the same. But he reacted angrily to a question about whether it was appropriate for the first lady of a secular state to wear an Islamic headscarf, characterizing a women’s decision about whether or not to cover her head as a personal preference and a basic human right (NTV, August 15).
But for many Turks, the headscarf remains an indication not only of personal piety and social conservatism but also of an Islamist political agenda. AKP officials have always refuted suggestions that it is an Islamist party. In the run-up to the elections of July 22, AKP supporters in the Turkish media insisted that the party was moving from the conservative right to the center-right of the political spectrum (Today’s Zaman, July 21). However, a survey conducted by the daily Hurriyet newspaper found that the wives of 235 of the 500 male deputies in the current parliament cover their heads. Of these, 226 are married to members of the AKP, representing 72.7% of the 311 male AKP deputies. In the previous parliament, the wives of 238 of the 350 male AKP deputies wore Islamic headscarves, a rate of 68% (Hurriyet, August 13).
Although it would be simplistic to assume that the increase in the number of MPs’ wives who wear headscarves necessarily represents a shift in the party’s political agenda, it is unlikely to reassure those in the military who already doubt the AKP’s claims to be moving toward the political center. In conversations with this Jamestown correspondent, members of the Turkish armed forces have repeatedly stressed that they regard the headscarf as a political symbol. On August 16, Buyukanit told journalists that the TGS has no intention of relaxing its ban on the wearing of the headscarf in any military facility, including receptions and ceremonies to which the Turkish president is invited. “We don’t want to argue with anyone,” said Buyukanit. “But we have our rules and our principles and we shall apply them” (Radikal, August 17).