The prospects of Gul as Turkish president

Turkey’s new Grand National Assembly, the product of the July 22 general elections, is to convene for the first time tomorrow under the threat of a fresh intervention by Armed Forces Chief Yasar Buyukanit. The hawkish leader of the country’s powerful military has in effect warned the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which triumphed in last month’s polls, not to renominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as a presidential candidate. As a result, Turkey’s popular mandate has been degraded, the smooth operation of the country’s political life has been disrupted and economic growth is under threat. Most analysts, both in and outside Turkey, agree that the crushing victory of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP conveyed a strong message to the constitutional court (controlled by the military) and to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) of Deniz Baykal, who in May effectively collaborated to block Gul’s election as president. The gist of this message is that the ruling party has every right to nominate the presidential candidate of its choice. For many, the 12 percent increase in support for Erdogan’s party was a slap in the face for the Kemalist establishment, which three months ago had used one interpretation of the constitution in a desperate attempt to avert the eventuality of a popular ruling party led by Erdogan and with Gul as president. Although Buyukanit’s intervention will inevitably influence developments, the post-election situation justifies a fresh nomination of Gul for president. Such a development would have no bearing on Greek-Turkish relations. It exclusively concerns the operation of democracy within Turkey. Gul has shown signs of moderation and has experience on the domestic and international level, having been foreign minister and deputy premier for four years. He has also pledged not to impose his religious beliefs on the Turkish people. Gul’s election can no longer be hindered by the constitution. The rightist Nationalist Action Party has undertaken the commitment to participate in presidential elections, regardless of the candidate chosen by Erdogan. This means that the election of Gul would be backed by two-thirds of MPs (from Erdogan’s party as well as rightists and Kurds). Many commentators have expressed concern about potential alliances between the AKP and the far right, and their fears are partly justified. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the AKP’s Islamist roots are losing their influence as the party undergoes reform, becoming a Muslim version of Christian Democrat parties in Europe. In view of the recent election result, the balance of power in Turkey’s new parliament and the retrogression signaled by Buyukanit’s latest intervention, Gul’s bid for the presidency appears to be inextricably linked with respect for democratic legitimacy.