ISTANBUL, Turkey, (AP) – Lawmakers begin voting Friday to choose a new president in an election that has been marked by tensions between the Islamic-rooted government and defenders of Turkey’s secular ideals. The opposition planned to boycott the vote and threatened to question its validity in an appeal to the Constitutional Court.
If voting proceeds smoothly, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is expected to win a series of parliamentary polls because the ruling party holds more than 60 percent of seats. He has promised to reach out to citizens worried that his almost certain victory will strengthen the role of Islam in politics.
“I am loyal to the republic, to secularism, to the principles of a democratic, social state ruled by law, as stated in the constitution in essence,” Gul said in an interview published Thursday in the Milliyet newspaper.
The comment echoed a recent statement by the head of the military, which considers itself the guardian of the secular principles in Turkey’s constitution. Gen. Yasar Buyukanit said the president must be loyal to secularism “not just in words, but in essence.”
The military, however, has largely shunned the public debate in an indication that Turkish democracy is on a more secure footing than in coup-prone days of the past.
Although the post is largely ceremonial, the president can veto legislation, and the prospect of electing a leading member of the pro-Islamic government has unnerved Turkey’s secular establishment. Hundreds of thousands of people recently demonstrated for secular ideals in the capital of Ankara, and another large rally was planned in Istanbul on Sunday.
“I tried to understand them,” Gul said of the demonstrators. “If they have concerns, doubts, my job is to remove those concerns. That will be my duty if I am elected president. I will strive to be the president of all citizens no matter their point of view.”
Current President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vigorously used his powers as a check on the government, vetoing a record number of legislative bills and appointments of officials deemed to be supporters of an Islamic agenda.
Gul is a close ally of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the presidency would complete their lock on power ahead of general elections planned for November.
The ruling Justice and Development Party has supported religious schools and tried to lift the ban on Islamic head scarves in public offices. Secularists are also uncomfortable with sending Gul’s wife, Hayrunisa, to the presidential palace because she wears the traditional Muslim head scarf.
Both Gul and Erdogan, however, reject the label of Islamist. The government has shown openness to the West by securing economic stability with help from the International Monetary Fund, and seeking European Union membership.
The foreign minister has spend the days since his nomination Tuesday courting opposition and independent lawmakers, urging them to thwart plans by the main opposition Republican People’s Party to boycott the election.
The Republican People’s Party has said it would ask the Constitutional Court to cancel the vote if it proceeds without two-thirds of lawmakers present — a move that could force early general elections. The ruling party insists only one-third of lawmakers must attend the first round.
The leaders of two small parties urged the government to hold early general elections and let a newly formed Parliament elect the president, saying the credibility of the political process was at stake and there was too much tension.
The military, at least in public, has left the political wrangling to the civilians. The military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pressured a pro-Islamic premier who was Erdogan’s mentor out of power in 1997. Any overt attempt to intervene in this process could harm the economy and the NATO member’s efforts to reform society as it vies for EU membership.
If elected, Gul will chair bimonthly National Security Council meetings, which gather the military’s top brass and some Cabinet members to discuss key concerns, including homegrown threats from radical Islamic circles.