Divisive Turkish Vote Heads to 2nd Round

The Associated Press
Monday, August 20, 2007; 2:46 PM

ANKARA, Turkey -- A devoutly Muslim candidate appeared on track to win Turkey's presidency despite coming up short of the two-thirds majority needed for a victory in Parliament's first round of voting Monday.

Detractors say Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul threatens to undermine secular principles enshrined in the constitution, while allies _ including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan _ say he's a reformer who has worked hard to bring Turkey into the European Union.

Fresh from an electoral mandate, the Erdogan camp seems certain to prevail. A victory in the second round Friday also requires support from two-thirds of the 550-member Parliament, but in next week's third round, only a simple majority is required, and Gul is assured victory then.

"If I am elected, I will pay utmost importance to harmony," Gul said Monday, seeking to ease concerns his election would upset the balance in the predominantly Muslim but officially secular country.

His candidacy is particularly galling to secularists because his wife wears an Islamic head scarf, a highly charged symbol in a nation whose revered founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, banned religious attire in daily life. The prohibition has been vigorously enforced in public offices and schools since a 1980 military coup.

The opposition is horrified that a head scarf-clad first lady is about to set foot in the presidential palace once inhabited by the national hero.

Gul and Erdogan have said they are not Islamic fundamentalists, citing their promotion of reforms to advance Turkey's bid to join the European Union. But they have also sought to improve ties with the Islamic world, including with hard-line nations like Syria.

The nomination of Gul for president this year sparked a crisis, with the military _ which has ousted four governments since 1960 _ threatening to intervene to preserve the secular regime.

The deadlock caused Erdogan to call early elections, which he won in a landslide. The ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party secured 46.6 percent of the votes in the July ballot, emboldening it to once again nominate Gul for the presidency.

While the post of president is largely ceremonial, the government would likely benefit from Gul's election. Erdogan has complained that outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a secularist, had vetoed several pieces of legislation and slowed government reforms.

The president has the power to temporarily block legislation or seek its cancellation in the constitutional court, and appoints high-level officials, including ambassadors and chief judges in top courts. The prospect of an Islamic slant in the judiciary is a factor that particularly frightens secularists.

Mesut Yilmaz, a former prime minister who is now an independent lawmaker, warned Gul and the government to act responsibly.

"Unfortunately, Turkey is now heading toward a dangerous social disintegration, there are very important duties that fall on both the president and the government against this," Yilmaz said Monday.

Gul received 341 votes Monday. His closest opponent, Sebahattin Cakmakoglu of the Nationalist Action Party, got 70 votes; the third contender, Tayfun Icli of the Democratic Left Party, received 13.

The secular Republican People's Party boycotted the vote, saying it feared Gul would undermine the country's secular principles and laws, including the head scarf ban. The party also said it would boycott receptions and trips abroad by Gul.

A boycott cannot stop Gul's election, as the Justice and Development Party has the simple majority of votes needed for a third-round victory.

"The president who will be elected will be the president of all," said Parliament Speaker Koksal Toptan, an Erdogan ally, calling Monday on lawmakers to unite around the new president.

Gul's wife Hayrunisa once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear the head scarf to a university, and Gul has defended his wife's right to wear one on public occasions.

Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of the military, said last week that the military would not quarrel with Gul if he is elected, but signaled that his wife would not be welcome for ceremonies at military facilities.

Kamer Genc, an independent lawmaker, said he told Gul on Monday that the head scarf is not compatible with the image of a modern, secular Turkey.

Gul scoffs at that view, saying his wife's personal preference must be respected.

"I will be the president, not my wife," Gul once said.

© 2007 The Associated Press