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Turkey: Where Does Presidential Crisis Go Now?

Abdullah Gul (left) looks on as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to AK lawmakers on May 2 (epa) May 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, the ruling AK party's nominee to be Turkey's next president, has withdrawn his candidacy after parliament failed on May 6 to get a quorum for the vote. Where does that leave the Islamist-rooted party's bid to claim the presidency now as it faces continued strong opposition from Turkey's secularists? RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel put that question to Istanbul-based Amberin Zaman, who covers Turkey for Britain's "The Economist."

RFE/RL: The withdrawal of the AK's party's candidate, Gul, seems to leave the ruling party at a crossroads. One path is to press for the early election of a new parliament and then, perhaps, present Mr. Gul again as the majority party's nominee. The other path would be to seek a constitutional amendment to allow the public, rather than the parliament, to elect the president. How do you rate these two courses?

Amberin Zaman: Judging by the reaction we had over the past week, I think the safest course for the AKP [AK party] would be to hold early parliamentary elections and then get the parliament to elect a new president. That would certainly be the least controversial path forward.

RFE/RL: Why is that?

Zaman: Anything this parliament does today is being called into doubt in terms of its legitimacy, and there is huge pressure from the Turkish military, from the secular opposition, indeed from the public [against] an AK president. And if, indeed, they do manage to pass through this constitutional package that would enable the people to vote directly for the president and if the people were to vote for an AK president, well, there are many analysts out there now who say there could even be a military coup.

RFE/RL: The AK seems to feel a new parliamentary election -- proposed for July 22 -- could shift the balance in the legislature sufficiently to remove the opposition's ability to derail votes in the chamber by simply boycotting them. In the current parliament, a boycott assures there is an insufficient quorum for an election. How do you rate the AK party's chances of achieving the parliament it wants the next time around?

Zaman: The general consensus is that, yes, the AK will do very well and, of course, I think there will be this sort of martyrdom factor that will rally the faithful around the party. Second, if the elections are indeed held in July, a lot of the secular voters will be away holidaying on Turkish beaches and may not go to the ballot box, that too may work in the AK's favor. But this is a very special time, really. It's almost as if history here is in the making, that Turkey's very future is at stake, certainly as viewed by the secularists and they have been out in the streets in their millions.

RFE/RL: Of course, to oppose the AK, the secularists must mobilize behind a powerful party, or parties, of their own. Is there any sign of which party they might turn to?

Zaman: Which party [the rallying point] becomes in their eyes is still up in the air. As you know, two center-right parties announced that they had merged over the weekend. They could be a potential choice of such voters. The CHP [Republican People's Party], the main pro-secular party, is now in talks with a smaller left-wing group [Democratic Left Party, (DSP)] and it, too, is talking about merging with that party. So there is a lot going on at the moment and, frankly, it is quite hard to predict at this point where voters will go.

RFE/RL: The crisis over choosing Turkey's next president has created an enormous crisis, enough to also test the strength and cohesiveness of the AK party. Can the AK feel confident its support base is unruffled, or does it also now face a test ofstrength that could bring some surprises?

Zaman: Let's not forget that even conservative, religious people in this country who vote for right-wing parties have traditionally shied away from voting for any party that they see as at odds with the establishment and, certainly, at odds with the military. And, unfortunately, the way that the AKP has handled this whole presidential election has really left it looking rather irresponsible, certainly weak in the wake of this extraordinary declaration that we had from the military -- which some people called an "electronic coup" -- so we don't know what the fallout from all this has been in terms of the AK's popularity.

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