Turkey's New Parliament Begins Elections

A politically divided Turkish parliament failed to elect a president Monday as the front-runner, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, could not secure the two-thirds majority needed for an outright win in the first round of voting.

Gul, a member of the Justice and Development Party and a devout Muslim, is expected to win in the third round of voting next week when only a simple majority is needed.

His first bid four months ago was derailed by Turkey's military-backed secular establishment amid fears that he would use his position to weaken Turkey's official nonreligious status.

Gul, who has pledged to protect Turkey's secular principles, received 341 votes Monday. But 367 are needed to win in the first round.

The second round, which is slated for Friday, also requires support from two-thirds of parliament.

The job of president, although largely ceremonial, is critical to overall control of the state. The president holds the power to veto legislation and appoints high-level officials, including ambassadors and chief judges to Turkey's top courts.

Gul pledged to "pay utmost importance to harmony" among key national players if elected.

If the voting follows party lines, Gul will likely win the contest against two opponents in the third-round vote Aug. 28.

Former Defense Minister Sebahattin Cakmakoglu, of the Nationalist Action Party, received 70 votes, while former state minister Tayfun Icli of the small Democratic Left Party received 13 votes.

Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Action Party, said Cakmakoglu would not withdraw from the race until the end.

The main opposition secular Republican People's Party boycotted the vote, saying it feared that Gul, an ally of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would help undermine Turkey's secular principles. The party also said it would boycott receptions and trips abroad by Gul. No other party has shared its stance.

The Republican People's Party is concerned that Gul would reverse some laws, one of the most controversial ones being the ban on Islamic head scarves in government offices and other public places.

Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear the scarf to a university. And Gul has defended his wife's right to wear a head scarf.

Gul and Erdogan have said they are not Islamic fundamentalists, citing their promotion of reforms to advance Turkey's bid to join the European Union. But they have also sought to improve ties with the Islamic world.

Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of the military, said last week it would not quarrel with Gul if elected, but he signaled that Gul's wife would not be welcome for ceremonies at military facilities where the wearing of head scarves is banned.

The nomination of Gul for president earlier this year sparked a crisis, with the military threatening to intervene to preserve the secular regime, and led to early elections.

Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party made a strong comeback by winning 46.6 percent of the vote last month and again nominated Gul for the presidency.

Erdogan, while addressing his party's lawmakers Monday, complained that outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, had vetoed several pieces of legislation and slowed government reforms, NTV reported.

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