ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has called on the army to stay out of politics following months of tensions between the Islamist-rooted government and the staunchly secular military.
The army, which has ousted four governmen’s in the past 50 years, has voiced opposition to Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul’s expected election to the presidency by the end of this month because of his Islamist past.
"Let us not mix the TSK (Turkish Armed Forces) up with politics. Let it stay in its place. Because all our institutions conduct their duties in line with what is set out in the constitution," Erdogan told Kanal D late on Monday.
"If you draw them into politics, then why are we here?" Erdogan asked in the interview. "For us the armed forces are sacred. They have a special place."
Gul won most votes in the first round of a presidential election in parliament on Monday but fell just short of securing the two-thirds majority needed to become the European Union-applicant country’s next head of state immediately.
The secular elite, which includes army generals and top judges, blocked Gul’s first bid to become president in April, triggering a parliamentary election in July which was intended to defuse the crisis over the presidency.
The ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam but has pursued economic, social and political reforms since coming to power in 2002, won a landslide re-election on July 22.
Analysts say the presidential vote’s legitimacy was boosted by the participation of opposition parties, besides the largest and secularist Republican People’s Party, and they said it was unlikely the army would try to influence the result.
"(The) probability of the army’s meddling in the presidential election is decidedly lower following the AKP’s election victory and broad-based participation in the first round of voting (for the president)," Turkey’s Finansbank said.
The army has not directly commented on Gul’s latest bid for the presidency, although the hawkish chief of General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, said in late July the president should be secular not just in words but also in deeds.
On Tuesday the army rejected media reports that a secret deal had been struck between Buyukanit and Gul to let the foreign minister take the post under certain conditions.
"There is no question of the Turkish Armed Forces bargaining over any issue with any person or institution," the General Staff said in a statement.
The AK Party is aggressively lobbying opposition parliamentarians to secure the extra seats needed to be able to clear the two-thirds hurdle in a second vote on August 24.
In any event, Gul is expected to defeat his two nationalist and leftist rivals in a third round of voting in on August 28, when he would need a simple majority to secure the presidency.
The presidency has traditionally been held by the secular elite and a former Islamist has never been elected president. Victory for Gul, 56, would complete the AK Party’s capture of all key posts in NATO-member Turkey’s political hierarchy.
The foreign minister is a respected diplomat who oversaw the launch of Turkey’s EU talks. He denies any Islamist agenda.
The military top brass’ attendance at the expected inauguration ceremony of Gul will be a key test as to whether they will put their differences behind them, diplomats say.