Turkish opposition leader boosts ruling party’s presidential hopes

The second largest opposition party in Turkey’s new parliament will take part in the upcoming presidential election, its leader said Thursday, boosting the governing party’s chances of seeing one of its own members as head of state.Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul signalled Wednesday that he could run for president again after the ruling AKP Party won snap elections Sunday and secured 340 seats in the 550-member parliament, according to unofficial results, cited by the Associated Press.

Gul’s botched bid to become president in April had sparked a political crisis that forced the early election.

Devlet Bahceli, head of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), back in parliament with 71 seats after a five-year absence, said in a newspaper interview that his party would not boycott the presidential vote expected next month.

That would ensure that parliament reaches the required quorum of 367 to hold the election. The AKP would then be virtually certain to elect the candidate of its choice in the third round of voting, when the winner needs the support of a simple majority of 276.

“When parliament convenes to elect a president, the MHP will be there,” Bahceli told the Milliyet daily.

“We may not support the AKP candidate, but they do not need our support anyway… They have enough members to elect their candidate in the third round,” he said.

Opposition attendance in the parliamentary vote for president is crucial for the AKP.

An opposition boycott of two parliamentary sessions in April and May deprived the house of the quorum required to hold a vote.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, which led the boycott, said Wednesday that as far as it was concerned, Gul’s Islamist past remained an insurmountable obstacle and that it would again boycott the vote if Gul stands.

Erdogan says he will seek a compromise with other parties on the presidential choice this time, while insisting that the candidate should come from his AKP.

Critics say that with Gul in the presidential palace, the AKP, which has its roots in a now-banned Islamist movement, will have a free hand to advance the party’s alleged ambitions to erode the separation of state and religion.

Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer often vetoed laws he deemed anti-secular and blocked the appointment of officials he saw as Islamist government cronies.

The AKP has disowned its Islamist roots, pledged commitment to the secular system and carried out reforms that stabilised the fragile economy and secured the opening of membership talks with the European Union.

But it has fuelled suspicions about its agenda with failed attempts to restrict alcohol sales and make adultery a jailable offence.

But the staunchly secular military, which earlier this year helped derail Gul’s first bid to become head of state, will find it much harder to block the former Islamist this time around, according to a Reuters’ report.

The army and the rest of Turkey’s secular establishment oppose Gul’s candidacy because of his Islamist past and his wife’s Muslim headscarf. They fear Gul as president would chip away at the separation of state and religion, a claim he denies.

The lira currency fell 3 per cent against the dollar on Thursday partly on fears of renewed tensions between the army and government and possible political instability in the European Union candidate nation. Shares shed 5 per cent.

But the army has few options, given the scale of the AK Party win in Sunday’s election, said Lale Sariibrahimoglu, Turkey correspondent for the respected Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Quoting a retired general, she wrote in the English language daily Today’s Zaman: “A military that says it is the army of the people cannot issue a memorandum against the government because the people voted overwhelmingly for the AK Party.”

The military views itself as the ultimate guarantor of Turkey’s secular order. With strong public backing, it ousted an Islamist-minded Cabinet just 10 years ago.

Nobody predicts tanks on the streets in 2007, but making Gul president would leave the army angrily resentful and less ready to cooperate on a range of issues including EU-linked reforms, Cyprus and how to defeat Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey.

Despite the secularists’ hostility, Reuters said, Gul is highly regarded by many in Turkey and abroad as a capable, mild-mannered diplomat and a key architect of Turkey’s EU membership bid.

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