Turkey's New President Riles Army

President-elect Abdullah Gul (front) reviews the honor guards as he arrives at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on Aug. 28 to take his oath. (Photo: Adem Altan / AFP-Getty Images)

As almost everyone who observed and covered the recent Turkish elections had expected Abdullah Gul has become Turkey's new president. But not on the first try. After three earlier yet unsuccessful attempts, Gul finally clinched the top job of the presidency (constitutionally speaking) on Tuesday with a reported 339 votes—28 seats short of the 367 votes or two-thirds "quorum" originally required to attain the post in the 550-seat parliament. In the latest round of voting, Gul needed only 276 votes or a "simple majority" to replace his predecessor Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Gul vs. the Army

Gul's ascendancy to the presidency is proof of the A.K.P.'s (Justice and Development Party's) near monopoly on power in this nation of 71 million people. This "Islam light" party appears to be an uneasy mixture of neoconservatism in the religious sense and neoliberalism economically. The party rose to power in the wake of the 2001 Turkish "kebab crisis," which spawned another infernal cycle of inflation in prices and a devaluation of the Turkish lira. This double whammy hit the middle class very hard. The A.K.P., however, by means of drastic International Monetary Fund reforms, managed to restore prosperity to the reemerging Muslim-oriented middle class. Gul's A.K.P., which won 46 percent of the popular vote in July's general elections, thrives on their support.

Game, Set, and Match

The A.K.P. holds a majority of seats in parliament in addition to the premiership and now has the highly prized presidency as well. This has most certainly riled the Turkish military brass. Posted on the military's Web site ahead of the elections were these words of caution attributed to Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the head of the army: "Our nation has been watching the behavior of those separatists who can't embrace Turkey's unitary nature and centers of evil that systematically try to corrode the secular nature of the Turkish Republic."

The army still perceives itself to be the guardian of secularism in the country. Since the founding of the republic in 1923, the military brass has acted as an arbiter and, hence, overseen the strict division between the Islamic faith and politics. This division of course has been blurred since the A.K.P. first came to power in 2002.

Prophet of Islam or Secularist Republican?

Not surprisingly, the army expressed its discontent with Gul's presidential bid last spring in a previous warning posted on its official Web site. This potential "e-coup" as the media referred to it was averted when tens of thousands of protestors poured onto the streets of Istanbul in support of the nation's secularism. This signaled a rejection of a possible Islamist threat to the Kemalist republic. However, Gul's presidential aspirations triggered a "snap" or early election this July. In the latest act of this political drama Gul re-introduced his candidacy and this time won the top office.

New Dress Code for the First Lady?

President-elect Gul, a former foreign minister, is an adept politician and a highly skilled diplomat who commands great respect at home and abroad. He will need these gifts to navigate between the rising tide of political Islam and ultranationalism in Turkey. His presidential victory risks heightening tensions on both sides. In an attempt to placate the jittery secularist elite, which is backed by the military, the incoming president and commander in chief of the armed forces has assured those who suspect him of having Islamic leanings that he intends to respect and uphold the republic's secular values.

As for the first lady, who many are watching, Hayrunnisa Gul is perhaps respecting her husband's wishes as she apparently doesn't plan to attend the official presidential swearing in ceremony adorned with a headscarf—the symbol of Koranic law.

On the headscarves in the presidential palace, one woman in a Turkish street commented: "I'm not bothered that his wife covers her head. But imagine a reception where everyone's dressed in the modern way … Well, I wouldn't be happy to see her dressed like a Saudi woman."

My guess is that the military leaders attending such a formal function would likely agree with these remarks.

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