Dispatches from Turkey

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Following protests, the Constitutional Court in Turkey annulled last Friday's parliamentary vote to elect a new president. Suna Vidinli gives her eyewitness account from Ankara.


We're staying overseas because it's time for our weekly visit with our anchor buddy. And today, we go to Turkey. Earlier this week, the constitutional court in Turkey annulled the vote in parliament for the new president. This came after thousands of protesters took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara to register their opposition to the candidate - Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a moderate Muslim. The protesters - many of them women - fear he has a hidden agenda to impose Islamic values upon the secular government.

Here to tell us more about the situation in Turkey is Suna Vidinli, chief communications officer for the MERKEZ Media Group. She joins us on the phone from Ankara.

Welcome, Suna.

Ms. SUNA VIDINLI (Chief Communications Officer, MERKEZ Media Group): My pleasure.

MARTIN: First of all, I don't understand - I think many Americans don't understand - how it is that you have only one candidate for president. So could you just briefly explain how that works?

Ms. VIDINLI: Sure. The way that presidential elections work in Turkey is that the parliament elects the president. And at the moment, the governing AK Party has the overwhelming majority in the parliament. So whichever candidate the AK Party has put forward would be the winning candidate, theoretically speaking.

Actually, up until the day of the elections, there were two candidates, and one of them backed down. So there was only the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, who's the remaining candidate. Normally, a majority vote - two-thirds of the vote - would be enough to elect the president.

However, like you said, the constitutional court made an extraordinary verdict and said that unless there are 367 MPs present in the parliament, that they would - could not be a valid election. So this was the reasoning behind the cancellation of the fourth round of the election.

MARTIN: So there wasn't a quorum?

Ms. VIDINLI: Yes. There wasn't a quorum.

MARTIN: There was not quorum.

Ms. VIDINLI: But it's important to know that up until today, this year, there was never a quorum demanded. So a lot of AK Party supporters say that this was a political decision, that it wasn't a judicial decision.

MARTIN: What is it about Gul that inspires such concern among his opponents?

Ms. VIDINLI: If you ask the people on the street, they might even think that Abdullah Gul is a moderate speaker. He speaks of few languages. He has been to the United States. He went to school in England. So, you know, to the guy on the street, he might not be a radical figure. But, as far as the secularists are concerned, any candidate that the AK Party proposes, they see that as a threat to the secular republic.

They are very much concerned about the headscarf issue. They do not want to see a first lady with a headscarf in Cankaya, in the White House of Turkey, so to say. So I guess that's one of the symbolic factors. But this should not be just limited to the Gul factor. If Erdogan was the candidate, the same reaction would happen there. Or if somebody else would have been proposed by AK Party, this was inevitable that they were going to have this debate.

MARTIN: This is often noted - Turkey is literally on the border between Europe and Asia, between East and West. And obviously, it's a very important - at a very important strategic position for the United States. The - Turkey is very interested in joining the European Union. So is this actually kind of a metaphor for the sort of internal struggle for the soul of Turkey of whether Turkey is going to be considered an Islamic country or a secular? But is there a tension that this represents?

Ms. VIDINLI: I think Turkey stands in the category of its own. It's not like any other Middle Eastern country. The democracy is very much vibrant. Women are very active in the media, in the private sector, in the politics. So it's difficult to compare it with its Eastern neighbors.

So in that respect, I think this debate to the moderates is very unnecessary, because the moderates majority feels that they're both Muslim and secular. That they are both turned towards Europe and also very much, you know, protective of their traditions as well. So to the overwhelming majority of the moderate Turkish people on the street, they feel that this debate was fabricated.

MARTIN: Why is the headscarf issue so important? I understand that Gul, if elected, his wife will be the first first lady - I don't know if you used that term - to wear a headscarf…

Ms. VIDINLI: Wear. Sure.

MARTIN: …in the presidential house, but why is that such a big deal?

Ms. VIDINLI: In Turkey, even after the age of 18, women cannot wear the headscarf to university if they're students. So here, the interpretational secularism is much more strict than, say, in France or in the States. So headscarf has been the symbolic issue. Because Turkey has been the most modern and most secular of all the Middle Eastern countries, I think the secular elite is giving much more importance to it than is necessary, maybe.

So maybe in other countries in France when it's not a problem, here it might be a problem. I do know that in American universities, you could wear a headscarf and you could attend classes, and it's politically incorrect to bar students from attending class. In Turkey, because this is a delicate regime, the republic is 100 years old, we are neighbors with Iran, and secular elite has obviously have their own reasons, you know, for being a little bit more paranoid than their French or American counterparts.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, is it just university? For example, if you are a woman member of parliament, can you wear a headscarf in parliament?

Ms. VIDINLI: No. You cannot enter the parliament, nor universities, nor schools - be it private or public. But you could work in private sector. It's just that because the majority of Turkish women do not wear the headscarf and because the public has been founded, you know, on very strict secular values, the elites of the - especially the secular elite - feels that this is an very important factor.

MARTIN: Do you feel that in the end, Gul will be seated, or is there further turmoil to be expected?

Ms. VIDINLI: Actually, I think everybody is waiting right now. This week is a very decisive week. We will see. If both the opposition and the ruling party come down and let the moderates lead the way, I think the crisis would be resolved.

MARTIN: Suna, thank you so much. I hope you'll check back in with us as this story develops.

Ms. VIDINLI: Of course, my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Suna Vidinli is the chief communications officer for the MERKEZ Media Group. She joined us on the phone from Ankara.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, a rock and roll band that will get you out of your seat.

Ms. SHINGAI SHONIWA (Lead singer, The Noisettes): A lot of time when we play, it's like a group of people who've been - not been out to do something for ages and locked up and then suddenly been let out some kind of confinement.

MARTIN: We visit with The Noisettes. Stay tuned.

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