ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s top general on Monday reiterated that the military wanted the next president to uphold the country’s secular values, potentially reviving tensions between the secularist establishment and the government.
The commen’s from Chief of General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit come amid recent concerns in financial markets about the presidency after an initial attempt to hold a presidential election was derailed earlier this year.
"We are still behind what we said. There is no change on that," Buyukanit told reporters when asked whether he stood behind his commen’s on April 12, insisting the next head of state have genuine secular credentials.
"We said what we said with conviction," he said at a reception for northern Cyprus at a military compound in Ankara.
These were the first commen’s from the powerful military on the subject since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, won a resounding victory in a parliamentary election on July 22.
Erdogan brought forward that election by months after the army-backed secular elite blocked his choice of an ex-Islamist ally — Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul — as the next president.
Parliament is set to convene on Saturday and the first major issue which it faces will be the election to choose a successor for the staunchly secular Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who is a fierce critic of the AK Party and has close ties to the armed forces.
The secular elite, including generals and judges, objected to Gul as president, fearing he would erode the separation of religion and state because of his Islamist past and the fact that his wife wears the Muslim headscarf.
But there is a growing expectation that Gul will resubmit his candidacy.
His supporters say Gul, who is an architect of Ankara’s European Union membership bid, would make a good president.
The military views itself as the ultimate guarantor of the secular order. With strong public backing, it ousted an Islamist-minded cabinet, which Gul was a member of, in 1997.
The military will find it harder to block him this time. The position of president carries great symbolic weight in Turkey, a key U.S. NATO ally. The president is commander in chief and has the power to veto key appointmen’s.
"The armed forces’ options are pretty limited, but don’t rule them out," said a senior Turkish defense reporter, who declined to be named.
The center-right, pro-business AK Party won nearly half of the votes cast on July 22. Last Wednesday, Gul portrayed the outcome as a popular endorsement of his presidential candidacy.
Erdogan says he wants to avoid fresh tensions and he will consult with the opposition over who will succeed Sezer, whose term expired in May but who has stayed on as interim president due to the Gul row.
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.