ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s new parliament will begin voting on Monday in a presidential election which Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is set to win months after the country’s secular elite blocked the former Islamist’s first bid.
His centre-right AK Party has been strengthened by a convincing win in July’s general election, called early to defuse a crisis over the presidency, and Gul is widely expected to be elected this time around despite some fierce opposition.
Gul’s win would be the first time in modern Turkey’s history that the presidency, traditionally held by the secular elite, went to a former Islamist. It would also complete the AK Party’s capture of all key posts in Turkey’s political hierarchy.
Monday’s vote is the first of up to four rounds and Gul, 56, is likely to be elected in the third session on August 28 when he needs only a simple majority — which the AK Party has.
Before that he needs two thirds of the votes to win, which is unlikely because the ultra-nationalist opposition MHP has fielded its own candidate, Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, and the pro-Kurdish DTP has signaled it will not vote for Gul. Leftist DSP is also fielding its own candidate, Tayfun Icli.
The MHP has however made Gul’s election more likely, just by agreeing to take part. The first vote in April was derailed by a court ruling that two thirds of parliament had to be present — impossible amid an opposition boycott.
The army, which undermined the April vote when it threatened to intervene in the election process, has signaled it has said all it plans to say. As recently as 1997 the army ousted a government in which Gul served over its perceived Islamism.
Turkey’s financial markets, which had been troubled by the dispute that derailed Gul’s first election bid, were this time focused on volatility in global markets with the election regarded as a foregone conclusion.
The lira firmed to 1.3440 against the dollar.
The presidential campaign has again brought to the surface the great divide among Turks, who are predominantly Muslim, over the role of religion amid fast economic and social change.
Gul says he backs secularism but opposition from the secularist elite remains fierce as they accuse the AK Party of seeking to break down the division between state and religion.
Gul’s wife wears the Muslim headscarf, seen by secularists as a provocative symbol of religion. It has become an unwritten rule that headscarves are not worn in the presidential palace.
The main opposition CHP has said it will boycott Gul’s presidential receptions and will again be absent for the vote.
Having him as commander-in-chief will irritate a military establishment that sees itself as the ultimate guardian of the secular state and has removed four governments in 50 years.
Gul has said he will be impartial and represent all Turks.
“If I am elected president, I will be careful with maintaining the balances within the country’s administrations,” Gul told reporters before the vote.
He will quit the AK Party, where he has been number two, but commentators say he will need to prove his independence.
“To prove himself independent from the AK Party he may veto some of their measures. … To make sure that he looks independent of the government,” said Ayse Ayata, political science professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.
Gul is a respected diplomat who has overseen the launch of European Union accession talks as foreign minister and was briefly prime minister when the AK Party came to power in 2002.
A Gul presidency will make the next government’s job easier as it will no longer have to get laws and appointments past President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who frequently vetoed their bills.
One of the new president’s first tasks will be to approve Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s new cabinet.