The Ultimate Prize

Turkey

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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They say that persistence pays off - a motto with which Turkey's former foreign minister Abdullah Gul can certainly associate. His presidential bid in April came to naught after Turkey's constitutional court ruled the vote null and void thanks to the lack of a quorum in parliament right on the back of a veiled warning from the military. Now, with the apparent backing of the electorate, Abdullah Gul has secured the highest post in Turkey.



The election process was no speedy affair, however. After failing to acquire the necessary 367 votes in the first two rounds of voting this month, Gul secured the absolute majority required for the presidency in the third round of parliamentary voting on August 28, netting 339 votes in a 550-seat parliament. The other two contenders were not in a position to throw down the gauntlet, with Sabahattin Cakmakoglu of the nationalist MHP and Tayfun Icli of the centre-left DSP acquiring 70 and 13 votes respectively.



The military's displeasure was apparent enough, distrustful as it is of Abdullah Gul, who, though a devout Muslim, claimed to have shed his political Islamist stripes of old, defining himself in the 2000s as a moderate and a reformist. But Turkey's generals are not convinced, evinced by their visible absence during Gul's swearing in ceremony - a move that could signal possible tensions between the prime minister / presidential axis and that of the military in the future.



This came on the back of a grim statement by chief of General Staff Gen.Yasar Buyukanit on August 27, an early Victory day speech one day before the presidential vote, warning of the Islamist threat to secularism in Turkey. Echoing an earlier statement in April, Buyukanit warned that centres of evil were trying to undermine the secular system and that these circles' insidious plans emerge in different forms - a clear reference to Gul's presidential bid. Otherwise translated, the military will scrutinise the every move of the new president and, if necessary, intervene in the interest of the secularist republic.



That Buyukanit's recent warning did not reverberate as strongly as that of April, was not surprising. The political playing field has clearly shifted in favour of the ruling party and their presidential candidate since the parliamentary elections, winning a landslide victory with 46.6% of national votes - 12% more than in 2002. The Nationalist Action Party's (MHP) decision to attend the presidential vote after winning 70 seats in the general election also meant that the AKP would have a sufficient quorum in parliament to have their president elected. That is regardless of how the MHP ultimately voted as their very presence provided the necessary number of attendees to hold the presidential vote, allowing for Gul to be elected in the third round.



That the main political opposition party, the centre-left People's Republican Party (CHP), boycotted the third round of the presidential vote in protest of Gul's candidacy, did not make the slightest difference to the election result. Unlike in May, no case could be made this time to the constitutional court that there was no quorum to hold the vote.



Yet, in a bid to heal the rift, Abdullah Gul has been at pains to reassure secularist doubters that he will act impartially and strictly in keeping with duties and responsibilities of the much-coveted post as protector of the secularist republic and -generals shudder - commander in chief of the armed forces. During his swearing in ceremony, the new president vowed to protect the tenets of the constitution that define a secularist, democratic state based on the rule of law. Gul has also promised to reach out to all Turks.



None of this of course diffuses the contentious issue of his veiled wife, which the military and the CHP say should in principle disqualify Gul from a post until now held by staunch secularists. This will be the first time in the history of the republic that Cankaya Palace hosts a covered first lady. The controversy is underlined by the fact that headscarves are banned from public offices, schools and universities in Turkey, with the troublesome cloth regarded by secularist Turks as a threat to the separation of state and religion. This is even though more than half Turkey's female population don headgear.



As such, Turkey's new first lady, Hayrunisa Gul, asked Atil Kutoglu, an Austrian couturier of Turkish descent, to refashion the headscarf design for her new post - which many interpret as a bid to help pacify secular critics. Her absence from the swearing-in ceremony, opting for watching it on television instead, also confirms the view that she will not assume a high profile during her husband's tenure as president.



Many nonetheless welcome Abdullah Gul's election, with local opinion polls showing that the majority of Turks do not in fact believe that secularism is under threat in Turkey. His exemplary record as foreign minister, the respect he has earned as a statesman and his liberal-economic outlook, concern for business and support for journalists and writers have earned him considerable kudos both at home and abroad. As a mild and moderate voice during the AKP's first term in office, Gul can also take much credit for the progress that Turkey has made in its EU-accession bid.



The local and foreign business community are all the more heartened by the cabinet recently put forward by Prime Minister Erdogan and just recently approved by the new president on deferral by his predecessor, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. The line up includes such key figures as Ali Babacan, shifting from state minister for the economy to foreign minister and still chief negotiator for the EU, with Finance Minister Kemal Unakitan and State Minister (for foreign trade) Kursad Tuzmen retaining their posts. Stepping into Babacan's shoes is a much welcomed newcomer, former Merrill Lynch executive Mehmet SimSek. The cabinet has a decidedly reformist and pro-EU feel to it.



The next big step is for Turkey to adopt a civilian constitution - to replace the one imposed by the generals following the military coup of 1980 - as planned by Prime Minister Erdogan. While the AKP is relieved to have Gul in Cankaya, the new president has his work cut out under the close scrutiny of a distrustful military.

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