Who Gets to Pick the President? Turkish Head of State Calls for Referendum

It may sound like an academic point, but in Turkey, the debate over who should get to elect the country's next president is exposing a deep rift pitting secularists against the religious.

The Kurdish separatist party PKK has increased its activity in south-eastern Turkey. Here, a funeral for an army major killed on Thursday.

The Kurdish separatist party PKK has increased its activity in south-eastern Turkey. Here, a funeral for an army major killed on Thursday.

The power struggle gripping Turkey became even more intense on Friday. Using the final political tools available to him, the country's secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, called for a referendum to determine whether his successor should be elected by popular vote instead of in parliament. At the same time, he said he would ask the country's high court to nullify a May 31 vote in parliament paving the way for a popular presidential election.

Sezer vetoed that measure once, but with parliament overriding, the president is not allowed to stand in the way a second time. Sezer opted for the referendum to avoid having to sign the bill into law himself.

The president's move is not likely to reduce tensions between Turkey's secular elite -- headed up by Sezer and backed by the military -- and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in political Islam.

With Sezer's term scheduled to end earlier this month, Erdogan had proposed long-time party friend and current Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül to be his successor. Gül's Islamic background -- coupled with a wife who wears the traditional headscarf -- led to Turkey's Constitutional Court putting a stop to the parliamentary voting on a technicality.

That decision initially defused tensions that had been building throughout an April which saw hundreds of thousands take to Turkish streets in defense of the country's secularist ideals. Prime Minister Erdogan called the decision a "bullet aimed at democracy" at the time.

At the end of May, however, Erdogan pushed through a bill which would change the constitution and allow the president to be elected at the voting booth. Polls indicate that Gül would easily win such a vote, but the court, which sees itself as a protector of the secularist state, may once again side with Sezer and approve his request to invalidate the May 31 decision.

However the debate over the legalities of the conflict overshadows the fact that the AKP's pro-Islamic tendencies are massively popular in Turkey. The party has repeatedly insisted it is not interested in establishing an Islamic state and has led Turkey on a path of reforms in order to prepare the country for potential European Union membership. Nevertheless, Sezer has vetoed a record number of bills proposed by the AKP, many of them aimed at weakening the church-state separations put in place by modern-day Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In view of this trend, the military is aware that it could be rapidly losing influence in Turkey. In April, leading generals even suggested that they might stage a coup against Erdogan if he insisted on pushing Gül into the presidency, a threat that the European Union immediately condemned.

Also on Friday, Iraq's foreign minister urged Ankara to rely on dialogue with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and not to make good on its threats to attack across the border into Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq. An increase in PKK attacks within Turkey -- including a Friday bombing in the south-eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, which injured seven -- has led to a massive Turkish military build-up on the border and cross-border shelling against PKK positions.

"This issue of the PKK can only be resolved through dialogue," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said in New York on Friday.


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