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Voting shows Turkish divide

August 21, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

istanbul, turkey -- Reviving a confrontation over the role of religion in public life, Turkey's ruling party on Monday tried unsuccessfully to have its candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, elected by lawmakers as the country's president.

Gul was virtually certain to triumph in the final round of voting next week, in which his Islamist-influenced party needs only to muster a simple majority in parliament.

Even so, the first-round vote, in which lawmakers denied him the two-thirds majority he would have needed to win, showed how divided this officially secular republic is over the notion of a president who is also a devout Muslim.

The battle over the presidency, a post once held by Turkey's staunchly secular founding father, Kemal Ataturk, triggered early elections last month, which resulted in a decisive victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Prior to that polling, Turks took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands to protest a presidential bid by Gul, a pious Muslim whose wife wears a head scarf of the type banned in Turkey's public universities and other state facilities and offices.

In April, Gul's candidacy also prompted unsubtle warnings from Turkey's military chieftains that the army would act as it saw fit to preserve the nation's secular system.

But critics were chastened, if not silenced, by the ruling party's robust performance in July's parliamentary elections, in which Justice and Development took nearly 47% of the vote in a crowded field of parties.

Gul, a respected diplomat, has promised he will do nothing to erode the constitutional separation of religion and state. Even so, many secular Turks regard the presidency as an important check on the powers of the ruling party, which has its roots in political Islam but now denies harboring any Islamist agenda.

Instead, the party, which describes its outlook as conservative-democratic, has concentrated on economic growth and pushing forward Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

Before the vote, Gul told reporters he would "carefully maintain the balance" between branches of government.

Although the presidency is in many respects a ceremonial post, its holder can veto laws, albeit with the possibility of being overridden by parliament. The president also makes key judicial and diplomatic appointments.

On Monday, Gul received 341 votes in the 550-seat chamber, well short of the 367 required for a two-thirds majority. The second round, to be held Friday, also requires two-thirds. But in the final vote, set for Aug. 28, only a simple majority is required, together with a quorum of two-thirds of lawmakers.

Officials of the ruling party said they had secured promises from lawmakers in other parties that a lack of a quorum, the technicality cited by opponents to deny Gul the presidency earlier this year, would not occur on the final vote.

The main secular opposition group, the Republican People's Party, did not field a candidate in the wake of its stinging loss in the July 22 parliamentary elections. Its supporters boycotted Monday's vote.

Sebahattin Cakmakoglu, the candidate of the far-right Nationalist Action Party, received 70 votes from lawmakers. Tayfun Icli of the Democratic Left Party got 13 votes. The rest were blank or invalid ballots.


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