Nicholas Birch in Istanbul -
The Turkish lira slumped 3% and Istanbul's stock exchange 6% in the first hour of trading Monday after Turkey's army threatened to block the government's presidential candidate because of his Islamist past.
Affable and pro-European, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul had been widely acclaimed as a perfect choice for Turkey's top spot when his candidacy was revealed last week. Markets reached record highs last Wednesday at the news his caustic boss Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan would not be standing.
But it is now clear that Turkey's secularists never saw Gul as a compromise candidate and will do anything to stop him.
First, on Friday afternoon, parliamentary opposition used a technicality to call on the Constitutional Court to block his rise. Then, hours later, in its harshest statement since it nudged an Islamist government from power in 1997, the army claimed secularism was under threat. Finally, on Sunday, around 500,000 pro-secularists met in Istanbul to call on the government to resign.
It's a sequence of events that has taken almost everybody by surprise. Last week, market players saw Gul's presidential candidacy and a court decision in his favour, as the best-case scenario. Yet Monday, in line with Turkey's big business, which called for elections on Sunday, investors now appear to be hoping the court will bend itself to the will of the soldiers and rule against Gul.
If it does - in a decision expected on or before May 2 - early general elections would be almost inevitable.
Many think the government should go to the polls regardless of the court's decision. The army didn't directly criticise the government, but it did seem to imply that the military would take a much more active role in domestic politics if Gul becomes president. Already severely damaged by this weekend's "e-ultimatum" from the army, EU relations would be unlikely to survive that.
The government so far shows no signs of wanting to compromise. Gul on Sunday said his candidacy was still on, awaiting the court's decision. Nobody knows yet what PM Erdogan will say when he addresses the nation this evening, although few expect him to announce early elections.
While elections would definitely ease the pressure, Turkey's deep polarisations show no signs of going away soon.
At the root of Turkey's spiralling political tension is the total lack of a realistic alternative to Turkey's ruling AKP. If anything, analysts say, AKP is likely to gain in popularity after its military mauling. That would leave the country facing yet another presidential election from an AKP-dominated parliament.
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