Turks wary of possible Islamist power play

Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's potential bid for president has sparked protests by secularists.

"Will he or won't he?" That is the question that has gripped Turkey for the last several weeks.

In early May, Turkey's parliament will elect the country's new president – a ceremonial though powerful and highly symbolic position – and the leading candidate is the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Although the prime minister holds more power, the presidency is in many ways a more prestigious position. Seen by many Turks as the guardian of the country's secular system, the president can veto laws, appoint key officials, and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Mr. Erdogan has not yet confirmed that he will seek the presidency, but his party, the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), has a solid majority in parliament that would guarantee his successful election.

The prospect of the religious-minded AKP controlling both parliament and the presidency, however, has put Turkey's secular establishment, especially the military, on edge and has had led to an outcry from a large segment of the public, which fears that the delicate balance between religion and state in Turkey could be threatened.

Secularist protesters rally

This past weekend, an estimated 370,000 protesters gathered in Turkey's capital, Ankara, for a rally against the possibility of an Erdogan presidency. Waving Turkish flags and carrying pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's secularizing founder, the crowd chanted slogans such as "Turkey is secular and will stay secular" and "We don't want an imam in the presidential palace."

Mehmet Erhun, an Istanbul businessman, and his two uncles made the five-hour drive to Ankara for the rally, the first demonstration he has attended in 30 years.

"I was there to make a message that this guy can be president, but he has to take the pressure off the nation. If he keeps polarizing in terms of secularization, then things can get out of control," says Mr. Erhun.

"In Turkey, the general public is usually silent. We are obedient people, unless things get to a limit. And this is a limit," he adds.

With Erdogan's potential candidacy already causing so much tension, several Turkish analysts have suggested that he step aside and let a more consensual candidate come forward.

"When the country faces so many problems and needs so many reforms, why do we need all this needless polarization?" says Sahin Alpay, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"We need a candidate that AKP supports, but that also wouldn't antagonize the military-civilian establishment," he said.

Erdogan is a polarizing figure

Though charismatic and popular with his electorate, Erdogan is very much a lightning rod in Turkish politics. While the country's president is expected to a kind of elder statesmen who sits above the political fray, the straight-shooting Erdogan is seen by many as too deeply involved in party politics to play that kind of role.

Secularists, meanwhile, still remember his efforts a few years ago to make adultery a crime and to rejigger Turkey's educational system to accommodate graduates of religious schools. For many of them, the idea of Erdogan's head-scarfed wife residing in the presidential palace is too much to bear.

"Are you aware of the danger? Clocks will be turned back 100 years on May 16," the secularist Cumhurriyet newspaper recently wrote, referring to the date when the new president will be sworn in.

While not referring specifically to Erdogan, the current president, arch-secularist Ahmet Necdet Sezer, said in a recent speech, "The political regime in Turkey has never faced dangers to that extent since the establishment of the republic."

"For the first time, the pillars of the secular republic are being openly questioned," Mr. Sezer, a former judge, said.

Though often described as a figurehead, the Turkish president is much more than that.

"It has become a guardian position, because it represents the state structure as set up by Ataturk," says Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy organization.

For now, Erdogan is keeping his cards close to his chest. A surprise candidate may be put forward, but many experts here believe he will run.

One of the secularists' worries is that once Erdogan is ensconced in the presidential palace, the AKP will use its parliamentary power to create a system where the president has even more power, something the party has talked about doing before.

But legal and political experts believe the way to avoid recurring tension over who is to become president is to actually take away some of the Turkish president's extraordinary powers and restore the position to that of a figurehead.

"The best thing for this country would be to put an end to this strange hybrid form of government where you have a parliament and a very powerful president who is not popularly elected and not accountable to anyone," says Mr. Alpay.

"It doesn't fit in a parliamentary system."

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