Turkish parliament elects new speaker

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Turkey’s parliament elected a new speaker at the first attempt on Thursday in a move that initiates the more important and potentially more divisive process of choosing the country’s new president.

Parliament elected Koksal Toptan, a member of the Justice and Development party (AKP), as the new speaker by a large majority of the 550 MPs after he received the backing of opposition parties. The job is influential and is usually reserved for an MP from the party with the largest number of MPs.

Mr Toptan, who is 64, and a former education minister, is widely regarded as a secular moderate in the religiously conservative AKP, which has 341 MPs and won a commanding mandate in last month’s general election. A lawyer who represents the industrial constituency of Zonguldak in parliament, he has had a long association with Turkey’s secular centre-right parties before joining the AKP.

He was able to attract support from the opposition because his wife does not wear the Islamic headscarf, a fiercely political symbol in officially secular but overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey.

Mr Toptan replaces Bulent Arinc, the religious conservative who had held the post for the past five years. Mr Arinc had become a controversial figure in the AKP for his view that Turkey’s next president should represent the religious Anatolian mainstream of Turkish life rather than be a secular figurehead as presidents up to now have been.

Election of the speaker will now allow parliament to begin to address its most pressing task – the election of Turkey’s new president to replace Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the arch-secularist incumbent. Some political and financial analysts argued yesterday that the selection of a secular speaker makes it more likely that the president will be Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister who is a devout Muslim and who has past links to Turkey’s Islamist movement.

Mr Gul’s candidacy in April sparked intervention from the military, which regards itself as the guardian of secular Turkey and has ousted four elected governments since 1960. The military’s move initiated an early general election, on July 22.

Mr Gul is expected to make his intentions clear in the next few days. Some analysts have speculated that he is under pressure from senior AKP figures to stand aside to avoid another clash with the military. Others say the party would face a grassroots revolt if it was seen to bow to military pressure to select an alternative.

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