Challenging Ataturk's Legacy

He instructs the convoy of cars that escorts him to stop at every red light. With him there are no shortcuts. He pays from his own pocket for meals at the president's residence. He is careful, meticulous and easily insulted, to the point that he once left a dinner with the U.S. president when he thought he was seated too far away in a place below his status, which at the time was Supreme Court judge.

Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who will finish his term as Turkish president in a month, was not a ceremonial president as had been expected, when he was elected in parliament in 2000. He used every authority granted to him. He "hassled" the late prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, when the latter sought a law to allow the dismissal of government officials who displayed overly religious tendencies, or who were suspected of supporting the Kurds. Sezer, the man responsible for implementing the constitution, returned the bill initiated by the government because "when I was elected, I committed myself to upholding the supremacy of the law," he says. A law that would grant the government powers that are too broad would undermine the foundations of democracy as Sezer sees it.

Turkey got to know its outgoing president well, but as of two days ago, it did not know who its next president would be. None of the candidates has announced an intention to run. But today is the last day for declaring, before obtaining parliamentary approval on May 16. By today, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have to decide whether he wants to be president.

The question is, does Erdogan want to be president, a position he could easily win given that 363 of the 550 members of parliament are from his party, the Party of Justice and Development, or will he let another member of the party run and continue to serve as prime minister?

As prime minister, Erdogan has very broad powers, far broader than the president. And when he looks ahead to the general elections in November, he must take into account that his party needs a charismatic figure like him to win the elections and repeat its achievement in the 2002 elections. On the other hand, the fact the representative of a religious party would be president of Turkey could be a historic challenge to Ataturk?s legacy, and it's possible Erdogan won't want to waive this pleasure.

A close associate of Erdogan and senior member of his party told Haaretz this past week that "there has to be a distinction between the party's political ambition and Erdogan's personal ambition. Erdogan wants to be president, without a doubt. The question is whether his personal ambition can wait another seven years until the next presidential elections, or will he want to realize his ambition now. From my knowledge of him, the man is not inclined to postpone satisfaction."

Tough call

But even the associate acknowledges that the prime minister is holding his cards close to his chest. Last week he queried members of parliament, most of whom urged him to run for the post, but before the decision, pressure is growing in all directions.

"This coming Saturday (yesterday) I won't participate in the protest against Erdogan?s candidacy, and it's not because I have a bad cold," wrote the columnist Yusuf Kanli in the Turkish Daily News. Kanli is not an Erdogan supporter, but he feels that even the steps being taken by the extra-parliamentary opposition don't indicate a particularly democratic outlook.

Such a dubious step was taken last week by Erdogan Tezic, the president of the Council of Higher Education, one of the country's strongest bodies, whose members include the rectors of the universities. He announced that if at least 367 members of parliament did not attend the parliamentary session where the president is elected, the vote would not be legal. Tezic's interpretation was intended to discourage the opposition from showing up for the vote, preventing the members of the ruling party from winning the presidential election.

Tezic's interpretation doesn't have much support in parliament, but the interesting thing is the very involvement of the Council for Higher Education, a body with no status in the electoral process. The Council has thwarted Erdogan's plan to implement a religious agenda, as he promised before the elections. His intention was to allow the graduates of religious schools where religious clerics are trained to register for general studies at the universities. Erdogan hoped to give these graduates a path to government positions.

If Erdogan is elected president, he will have the authority to appoint the members of the Council of Higher Education, and will be able to change the entire education system.

Ostensibly, this is a theoretical danger, because at any stage the army can determine that Erdogan's actions may damage the secular foundations of the constitution and end his term as it did in 1997 to Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. But in a situation where Turkey is trying to join the European Union, the army's ability to intervene is limited, and consequently the president's powers are greater.

Of course, not only the Council of Higher Education opposes Erdogan. Other opposition comes from rightist circles and from leftists, who see the president as a national symbol, and therefore don't want to see as the head of state a man in favor of a state with a religious character. To counter this claim, Erdogan's associates offer "proof" that his term as prime minister highlighted Turkey's abilities to bridge East and West.

Turkey did much to pave its way into the European Union, including amending the laws relating to Kurds, at the behest of Brussels. "We understand well what the limitations of the constitution are and we are working within this framework and not outside it," explains Erdogan's associate. "When you want to enlist more supporters in your ranks, you must realize that religious slogans alone will not help."