Turkey's foreign minister withdraws bid for presidency

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul withdrew his candidacy for Turkey's presidency Sunday, after his ruling party failed to gain a quorum in parliament to elect him.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul withdrew his candidacy for Turkey's presidency Sunday after his ruling party failed to gain a quorum in parliament to elect him.

Gul's withdrawal from the presidential raceis a sign that the governmentis giving up efforts to pushhis candidacy through parliament in defiance of strong secularist opposition.

"There is no point in holding a new round of election," Gul said after the parliamentary session Sunday. "Parliament is deadlocked. The correct thing now is for the people to elect" the new president.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, already looking toJuly 22 elections, is amending the constitution to open the way for the president to be elected by popular vote, instead of parliament.

The presidential elections have exposed a deepening divide between pro-secular groups and supporters of Erdogan's party. Secularists oppose Gul's candidacy, fearing that Erdogan's party will expand its control and impose religion on society.

In the May 14 issue of Newsweek magazine, Gul rejected the idea that his government has a hidden Islamist agenda he would implement if elected.

"We have worked harder than any party in Turkey's history to make Turkey a member of the EU," Gul told Newsweek. "Why would we do this if we are trying to Islamize Turkey?"

Elections cancelled

On Sunday, Parliament was short of the 367 legislators needed to proceed with the vote because secular lawmakers from the opposition boycotted the session. The attempt was a repeat of a first-round of elections which the Constitutional Court, siding with the secular opposition, cancelled last week on grounds that there was no quorum.

Gul has said he could stand for president if the vote went to the people, but did not say Sunday whether he intended to run in a popular vote. He told the Financial Times on Friday he believed he had the support of 70 per cent of the public.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul in recent weeks to pressure Erdogan against nominating a presidential candidate with Islamist leanings. Thousands attended protests in smaller cities in western Turkey, keeping up the
pressure on Erdogan.

The presidency, which has been a stronghold for secularists, holds significant powers, including the power to veto legislation.

Secularism enshrined

Many fear that Erdogan's party could use control of both parliament and the presidency to erode the separation of state and religion, and curb secular freedoms such as women's rights.

Turkey's secularism is enshrined in the constitution and guarded by the judiciary and the powerful military, which has threatened to intervene to ensure that secularism is enforced.

Erdogan's ruling party, an advocate of European Union membership, rejects the label of Islamist and has done more than many other governments to introduce Western reforms to the country.

His government called for early elections in reaction to the court's decision last week to invalidate the first-round of presidential voting.

Committee approves election measure

A parliamentary committee approved a measure late Saturday allowing a popular election for president.

It also approved several other amendments — reducing the presidential term to five years from from seven years, allowing the president to run for a second term, and holding general elections every four years instead of five.

It was not immediately clear when the amendments would come to the floor.

Legislators from Erdogan's party have said, if the amendment is passed on time, Turkey could hold general and presidential elections on the same day.

In 1999, Erdogan was jailedfor challenging Turkey's secular system, and many of his party's members, including Gul, are pious Muslims who made their careers in the country's Islamist political movement.

"Of course … Turkey is a Muslim country," Gul told Newsweek. "But that doesn't mean we should mix Islam and politics. It would be bad for both."