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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Turkey is poised to elect a new president after a period of turmoil, and that president could well be a former Islamist. Lawmakers today cast their first round of votes for Turkey's president. And a former Islamist, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, won the most votes but not enough to win outright.

NPR's Ivan Watson is in Turkey's capital Ankara and joins us now.

And, Ivan, when Abdullah Gul stood for president last spring, he sparked a political crisis. Now he's won the first round of voting.

IVAN WATSON: Yeah. It's quite a change. Just last April you had huge secularist street rallies, you had the Turkish military issuing statements saying that there was a threat of Islamic fundamentalism destroying the secular system of government in this majority Muslim state, and eventually a court decision which declared elections - presidential elections in April invalid.

And now the same candidate who triggered that uproar stands poised once again to win the presidency again. Today, Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister of Turkey, a former Islamist politician who is moderate in his views somewhat, he narrowly missed winning the two-thirds majority needed in parliament to become the next president. Now the parliament will have to convene again on Friday to make another go at this.

MONTAGNE: So what has changed?

WATSON: Well, after the elections were annulled last April, the government had to call snap general elections, which were held last month. And in those elections, Abdullah Gul's AK Party won big. They won almost 47 percent of the popular vote. They again won majority of seats in parliament. It was viewed widely as a referendum showing that much of the public was behind this party, was not afraid of secularism falling apart as a result of this man being elected president. It was a big blow to the Turkish military and to the opposition secularist political parties that triggered the crisis by boycotting last April's elections.

MONTAGNE: And is it because Turkey is so emphatically secular, even though it's a majority Muslim country, is that a reason that a President Gul would be very controversial?

WATSON: It would be. You know, He was a member of a government, a much more radical Islamist government in the '90s, which was pushed out of power by the Turkish military. Also, Abdullah Gul, his wife wears a headscarf and that's a very divisive symbol for very many Turks in this country, because headscarves are banned by the constitution from being worn in schools and universities and government buildings. And she's even taking the state to court in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that it should be her freedom to wear a headscarf. So she's a very controversial figure for secularist Turks.

MONTAGNE: Okay, so the vote wasn't clear after this first round of voting. What's next?

WATSON: Well, there will be a second round on Friday. Unless anything changes, though, with lawmakers, it looks like it will have to go to a third round on August 28th, in which case Gul may win with a simple majority and be inaugurated president on the same day.

MONTAGNE: Ivan, thank you very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ivan Watson in the Turkish capital of Ankara.

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