Back to the Brink in Turkey?

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The re-nomination of Abdullah Gul for President has renewed concerns that Turkey could be plunged back into the political crisis that triggered early parliamentary elections last month. That crisis pitched the ruling conservative AK Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the staunchly secular military, which rejected the nomination of Gul, the foreign minister, for the largely ceremonial presidency. The military opposed Gul's initial candidacy on the grounds that it represented a violation of Turkey's founding secularist principles — the fact that Gul's wife, a conservative Muslim, wears a headscarf in public represented a symbol of the Turkish state intolerable to the generals. Gul's nomination was eventually blocked by a parliamentary maneuver by secularist opposition parties, and the AK Party responded by calling new elections. Now, having received a resounding vote of confidence from 47% of voters in last month's poll, they're once again trying to elect their man. Turkey's President is chosen by parliament, and the first round of voting is scheduled for August 20. It is not year clear how the army will respond this time, if at all.

Although Gul is backed by the majority of his party, other AKP nominees may step forward in coming days — including two men who may be less offensive to the military: One is a former Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul; another is a former Minister for Religious Affairs, Mehmet Ali Aydin. Both are considered moderates and both, notably, are married to women who leave their hair uncovered. The largest opposition party, the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, may also field a candidate.

Despite differences over the nominees, April's parliamentary stalemate is unlikely to be repeated. To win the presidency, a candidate must the backing of two thirds of legislators in either of two rounds of voting. But if the vote is forced to a third round, a simple majority suffices to elect a candidate — provided enough legislators show up to vote. Gul's candidacy failed in April because opposition parties stayed away and denied parliament a quorum. That is unlikely to happen this time. A member of the opposition Nationalist Action Party promised Tuesday that his party will turn out to vote, no matter what, and that would ensure the requisite two-thirds quorum. Analysts expect the vote to go to a third round, at which point the candidate backed by the AK Party would win.

Gul is undeterred by the military's opposition, insisting he is the right man for the job. Despite his roots in Islamist politics, he is considered a moderate and, as Turkey's foreign minister, is comparatively well-known outside of Turkey. At 56, he is young by the standards of Turkish politicians, and was visibly thrilled by his party's electoral victory last month — and by banners waved during the parliamentary campaign that read "Gul for President!" Addressing reporters on Tuesday, he vowed to stand by the secularist priniciples of Turkey's constitution.

"I will work to protect the vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [the staunchly secular founder of modern Turkey]," Gul said. "It is the duty of the president to protect democracy and secularism." Some liberal commentators are supporting his candidacy as a reproach to the military for intervening too vocally in May. But the hard-line secularist Republican People's Party, or CHP, reacted harshly. Its leader, Deniz Baykal, denounced his nomination as a threat to the "peace and stability of this country." He told a Turkish newspaper, "If Gul is elected, Turkey's political balances will change . Turkey will be transformed into a country with an overbearing religious and Middle Eastern identity." Some Turkish business leaders have also called for alternate candidates to step forward in order to prevent renewed political instability.

The Turkish military was roundly criticized at home and abroad for helping trigger the crisis in May: In what was later described as an "e-coup," the military had published a message on its website denouncing Gul's candidacy. The nomination of a candidate other than Gul would allow the generals a face-saving line of retreat. But if that does not happen, last month's victory at the ballot box for the AKP leaves the army facing a stark choice between its version of secularism and respect for Turkish democracy.