This isn't a matter of dress sense. Gul's nomination (and his wife's attire) has laid bare Turkey's deep divisions over the separation of religion and government. The protest was part of a much broader revolt by Turkey's self-described "secularists" against a popularly elected Islamic-leaning government that has held powerwith considerable successsince November 2002. An ad hoc coalition of opposition parties, the military and parts of the judiciary, often referred to in Turkey as the "secular establishment," has in recent days derailed the presidential selection process in a standoff that underscores a more fundamental clash between the country's urban, secularist élites and its increasingly Islamic political class.
That clash came to a head on May 1 when Turkey's Constitutional Court annulled the first round of elections in Parliament that would have made Gul President. Handpicked by his longtime ally Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Gul was ahead in the ballot, but the court, in a ruling that appeared to betray its secularist bias, upheld claims by Turkey's main secularist political party that the balloting was unconstitutional because a quorum wasn't presentno matter that the opposition engineered that shortfall by boycotting the vote, or that at least one President had previously been elected with a smaller quorum. Faced with this deadlock, Erdogan announced that he will call a general election in July to remove what Gul called "the shadow that has fallen on Turkey."
Fears that Turkish democracy is now in jeopardy have been exacerbated by the reappearance of the military as a political player. On April 27, a communiqué on the army's website warned: "The Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism. When necessary, [it] will display its stance and attitudes very clearly. No one should doubt that." The message didn't mention Gul by name, but the meaning was clear: the military reserved the right to intervene if Gul became President. Though condemned in all corners of the Turkish press, the military's gambit made the court ruling against the AKP "almost inevitable," according to a senior Western diplomat. In an interview with TIME, retired army general Riza Kucukoglu said the military is now prepared to step back "because democracy is working," but he insisted that the ruling party was to blame for the crisis because it chose to nominate a "religious President." If the army fails to "deal with extremist ideology," he added, "Turkey could become a swamp that threatens not only the region but Europe and the U.S. as well."
The irony is that Turkey has been held up in recent years as a heartening example of a state that successfully straddled the Western and Islamic worlds, keeping religious extremism at bay while displaying an impressive combination of stable governance and economic vigor. Now its status as a role model is in doubt. "We thought we had developed the ability to democratically resolve our issues," says Hakan Altinay, director of the Open Society Institute, a pro-democracy group in Istanbul. "We can't say that now. A society that cannot reach a consensus on its own has a serious problem." Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, echoes his concern, warning that for Turkish democracy the stakes "could not be higher. We're heading into a highly polarizing and divisive campaign in which the outcome is unclear and at the end of which the military may be faced with the same problem as before." Ismet Berkan, editor of the mainstream daily Radikal, puts it more bluntly: "I think the threat of a military coup is still very real. Why not? The boundaries of rational behavior have long since been overstepped."
Even without the ominous prospect of military meddling, the stakes are high indeed. The threat of further political turmoil is already spooking investors, with Turkish shares tumbling 8% on Monday alone. A political impasse threatens to slow or reverse democratic reforms that were under way to meet European Union norms, and could further complicate Turkey's strained relations with Europe. Some E.U. membership negotiations are already on hold, and they are not likely to resume if the government cannot agree on who's in charge. Senior E.U. official Olli Rehn has said Turkey's handling of the crisis will be a "test case" in terms of measuring its readiness to join the club.
Turkish democracy has always been a complicated and fragile phenomenon. On the one hand, the country's secular traditions date back to founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who mandated in 1923 a strict divide between mosque and state. (He banned the fez, and modeled his constitution on the Swiss Civil Code.) The secular middle class that grew out of that tradition, filling the ranks of the bureaucracy and profiting from its largesse, has dominated Turkey's political and economic landscape for most of the last century. The Turkish army has served as a guarantor of this successful arrangement. The self-appointed guardians of Ataturk's "Kemalist" legacy launched four coups in response to perceived threats; the latest, characterized as a "soft coup" because tanks did not actually roll in the streets, toppled a forerunner of the AKP, the Welfare Party, in 1997 after it was deemed to be flirting too closely with political Islam.