By Gareth Jones
ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s ruling AK Party, emboldened by its big election win, looks increasingly likely to re-submit Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate for president, risking a fresh clash with powerful army generals.
But the staunchly secular military, which earlier this year helped derail Gul’s first bid to become head of state, will find it much harder to block the former Islamist this time around.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s centre-right, pro-business AK Party won nearly half of the votes cast in last Sunday’s parliamentary election. On Wednesday, Gul portrayed the outcome as a popular endorsement of his presidential candidacy.
The army and the rest of Turkey’s secular establishment oppose Gul’s candidacy because of his Islamist past and his wife’s Muslim headscarf. They fear Gul as president would chip away at the separation of state and religion, a claim he denies.
The lira currency fell 3 percent against the dollar on Thursday partly on fears of renewed tensions between the army and government and possible political instability in the European Union candidate nation. Shares shed 5 percent.
Gul’s hopes received a further boost on Thursday when the leader of the ultra-nationalist party in parliament was quoted as saying his 70 MPs would attend the voting sessions in the assembly for a new president, expected in August or September.
The AK Party won 341 seats in the 550-member chamber, short of the 367 quorum needed for voting on a presidential candidate to be valid, so the opposition parties’ stance is crucial. The ultra-nationalist MHP’s pledge clears the way for Gul’s bid.
But the army has few options, given the scale of the AK Party win in Sunday’s election, said Lale Sariibrahimoglu, Turkey correspondent for the respected Jane’s Defense Weekly.
Quoting a retired general, she wrote in the English language daily Today’s Zaman: “A military that says it is the army of the people cannot issue a memorandum against the government because the people voted overwhelmingly for the AK Party.”
The military views itself as the ultimate guarantor of Turkey’s secular order. With strong public backing, it ousted an Islamist-minded cabinet just 10 years ago.
Nobody predicts tanks on the streets in 2007, but making Gul president would leave the army angrily resentful and less ready to cooperate on a range of issues including EU-linked reforms, Cyprus and how to defeat Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey.
In April, a stern army statement warning of the risks to secularism helped torpedo Gul’s first bid for the presidency, forcing Erdogan to call an early parliamentary election.
Erdogan says he wants to avoid fresh tensions and has vowed to consult with the opposition over who will succeed Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist whose term expired in May but who has stayed on as interim president due to the Gul row.
But on Wednesday Gul made clear he still wants the top job, which includes being commander in chief of the armed forces.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), told the Milliyet daily: “Consistency requires us to attend (the voting on a president). Whom the AK Party chooses as its candidate does not interest us.”
In any case, the AK Party has enough deputies of its own to ensure Gul’s election in a third round of voting when it needs only a simple majority.
Despite the secularists’ hostility, Gul is highly regarded by many in Turkey and abroad as a capable, mild-mannered diplomat and a key architect of Turkey’s EU membership bid.