Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is Turkey's most talented and most popular politician. But he's apparently not talented or popular enough to break through a secularist glass ceiling to the job of president. On Tuesday, Erdogan, bowed to political pressure and nominated Abdullah Gul, currently foreign minister, as the ruling AK Party's choice for president when the Parliament begins its vote Friday.
In theory, the job was Erdogan's for the taking. The president is elected by Parliament, where Erdogan commands a healthy majority. But the military remains politically powerful, and all year rumblings of discontent have served as a warning for Erdogan not to take the job. The reason? Erdogan is seen by many in the traditionally secular nation as dangerously Islamic. It's not that he's done much while in office to give that impression. He's made his career in a series of mildly Islamist political parties, and in 1999 he served a four-month prison term for "sedition" after he quoted a famous Turkish poem describing "the mosques are our helmets, the minarets our spears." Although Erdogan has been extremely careful to avoid actually introducing any overtly religious legislation since coming to power in a landslide election victory in 2002, he's still deeply distrusted by the secularists. They want the presidency, currently held by a militantly secular former judge, to be a check on Erdogan's power, not the crowning point of his political career. Army leaders aren't the only ones who are suspicious; earlier this month a million marchers turned out in Ankara to protest his running for the top office.
Enter Abdullah Gul, Erdogan's right hand man and Turkey's quiet and able foreign minister. Although Gul is a devout Muslim, he's seen as more of a moderate than Erdogan. The reasons for that perception are historical—they date to the political Islamic movements of the 1990s, when Gul led a moderate rebellion against Erdogan's one-time patron, Necmettin Erbakan, the devout prime minister ousted by the Army in 1997. In the actual tenure of the AKP in office since 2002, though, there has been little difference between Gul and Erdogan. Most importantly, Gul hasn't been in jail for sedition. (Before the AKP introduced new laws in 2003 to allow Erdogan to become prime minister, a conviction on sedition was enough to ban a person from running for political office for life.)
Yet even Gul knows that he needs to grovel to break the ceiling. On Tuesday he told Parliament that "Turkey needs a secular president" and promised to uphold the ideals of Turkey's radically secular founder, Kemal Atatürk. Gul is also expected to be discreet about his wife, Hayrunisa, who wears an Islamic headscarf. A law dating from Atatürk's time (and still in force) bans headscarves from Parliament, universities, schools and all state workplaces and official functions. Erdogan sent his two daughters to U.S. colleges to get around the ban. Gul will almost certainly not move into Çankaya palace, the official presidential residence, and will keep his wife away from official functions.
So much for the AKP being firebrand Islamists. This week has shown that they're actually willing to bow to the establishment when they need to. They're also going along with a growing nationalism in Turkey. A drop in support Turkey's EU bid from 70 percent in 2005 to just 30 recently, has put the pro-European AKP on the defensive. Their challenge is to stop the Army, the ultranationalists and the secular establishment from filling the vacuum.
Erdogan and Gul's answer has been to try to be more nationalist than the nationalists, threatening restive Kurds in Turkey's southeast with terrible retaliation after a spate of attacks on Turkish security forces earlier this year. More worryingly, they've also backed calls from the military for an incursion into northern Iraq this spring. Gul complained last month that the Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had used "remote-controlled explosives and weapons obtained in Iraq, including from the Iraqi Army" against Turkish troops. "We cannot tolerate this," he threatened. "If the Iraqi government cannot stop it, we will have to take action."
There are also indications that preparations are already underway on the ground. According to press reports, mine-clearing operations are underway along the border, while Turkish special forces reportedly have penetrated up to 25 miles inside northern Iraq to prepare the advance and seal off PKK escape routes. As many as 200,000 Turkish soldiers were brought up to the border last month. Turkey has been resupplying Army divisions along the Iraq border and has cancelled all leave for these formations for the next three months.
Turkey has been saber rattling on Iraq border for years, but last month, for the first time, Turkey's top general, Chief of the General Staff Ya?ar Büyükan?t, publicly called on the AKP government for a green light for action. Whether or not to grant it will be a crucial test for Gul and Erdogan. PKK rebels have stepped up their spring campaign in Turkey, killing nearly a dozen troops and police over recent weeks. Doing nothing could mark the AKP as soft on terror and damage its chances in November's parliamentary elections. The Army, at the same time, can cast itself as the true guarantor of Turkey's national security in calling for action. Yet if they agree, Ankara risks all-out confrontation with Washington and the Kurds of northern Iraq, as well as unrest among their own 14 million strong Kurdish population.
Turkey's new president will face an enormous foreign-policy challenge. Caving in to the military would win him political points at home, at the cost of sparking a dangerous and uncertain conflict on Turkey's most volatile border.