An observant Muslim with a background in Islamic politics was voted in on Tuesday as president, breaking an 84-year grip on power by the secular establishment and ushering a new religious middle class from Turkey’s heartland into the center of the staunchly secular state.
Lawmakers approved Abdullah Gul, a 56-year-old economist, with 339 votes, far above the simple majority required in the 550-member Parliament. Two candidates shared another 83 votes. The main party of the secular establishment boycotted the balloting.
The selection of Gul ended four months of political standoff that began when Turkey’s secular establishment and military, virulently opposed to his candidacy, blocked it in May, forcing a national election last month.
But Gul’s party, Justice and Development, refused to back down, and his success on Tuesday was a rare occasion in Turkish history in which a party prevailed against the military.
There was no immediate statement from the military, which has ousted four elected governments since 1960. But its unspoken reaction was frosty: No military commander attended Gul’s appointment ceremony, a highly unusual departure from protocol, considering that he is now the commander in chief.
“This is definitely a day when we are turning a page, an important page, in the political history of the country,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “The boundaries have been expanded in favor of civilian democracy.”
Gul’s appointment places his party in control of most of the Turkish state, with the posts of prime minister, speaker of Parliament, and president. Thousands of rank-and-file party members are settling into the Turkish bureaucracy, and some Turks worry that a more conservative worldview could begin to affect their secular lifestyles in deeply personal areas, like education for their children.
“We are in uncharted waters,” Ozel said. “We don’t know how they will run the country. This is not a party that has articulated its world view very clearly.”
As president, Gul has veto power over legislation. He also has control over hundreds of appointments, particularly to the judiciary.
The appointment upsets the power hierarchy in Turkey, a secular democracy whose citizens are Muslims, by opening up the presidency — an elite secular post that was first occupied by this country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — to a new class of reform-minded leaders from Turkey’s provinces, for decades considered backward by the elite.
His hometown, Kayseri, was decorated with Turkish flags, and a sound system was installed in the city center to broadcast the ceremony and celebration, a scene carried by NTV television as he succeeded Ahmet Necdet Sezer as president.
But he will have to work to persuade skeptical Turks of the country’s western cities that he will also represent them.