Turkey's staunchly secular president ends his seven-year term next month, and lawmakers are preparing to elect his successor in a contest that highlights the divide among Turks over the role of Islam in politics.
President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whose tenure ends May 16, is likely to be replaced by someone from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted party, and perhaps by Erdogan himself. Supporters of the 66-year-old president plan to demonstrate in the capital, Ankara, this weekend to protest the idea of an "Islamist" taking over the post.
Turkey's secularists, who include the military, fear that if Erdogan -- or someone close to him -- wins the presidency, the government will be able to implement an Islamic agenda without opposition.
Although largely ceremonial, the president enjoys some power -- and Sezer has used it to block Erdogan initiatives that he viewed as threatening Turkey's secular foundations.
With the opposition too weak to block Erdogan's majority in parliament, Sezer vetoed a record number of bills deemed unconstitutional and blocked the appointment of hundreds of officials believed to have Islamist tendencies.
Bills vetoed by Sezer included a public administration bill that some believed would have eased restrictions on the wearing of headscarfs in government offices, and a university bill that would have favored religious school graduates.
The president is elected for a single term by parliament, which is now dominated by lawmakers from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party. Erdogan, 53, has not said if he will stand; he was expected to announce the party candidate for the position this month.
The prime minister is a polarizing figure because of his Islamist background -- and even his wife's decision to wear an Islamic style headscarf has political implications. Secularists are aghast at the prospect of a first lady wearing the religious symbol in the presidential palace once occupied by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, secular republic.
"Are you aware of the danger?" the staunchly secular Cumhuriyet newspaper has warned in an anti-government campaign that claims "clocks will be turned back 100 years on May 16."
Erdogan denies his party has an Islamic agenda. Since coming to power in 2002, his government has promoted Turkey's European Union membership bid, which resulted in the start of accession talks in October 2005.
But many in the military, which views itself as the protector of Turkey's secular identity, distrust Erdogan. In 1999, Erdogan was jailed for reciting an Islamist poem at a political rally. Fiercely secular generals have led three coups since 1960 and pressured a government out of power in 1997 for what they saw as an excessive Islamist bent.
Today, the military is more acquiescent in the face of civilian authority, and unlikely to stage a coup over the presidential election. But politicians step carefully when they deal with the military, which commands widespread respect in Turkey.
Although some party supporters would want Erdogan to become president, others worry that without the popular politician to steer it into general elections, the party would not do so well and might have to share power. Turkey must hold general elections by Nov. 4.
Prominent business groups have indicated they would like to see Erdogan remain prime minister for the sake of stability. Under Erdogan's government, Turkey's economy has grown by around 7 percent annually.
As tensions rise ahead of the presidential vote, the opposition center-left Republican People's Party has threatened to boycott parliament, which would leave the governing party short of the two-thirds majority needed to vote in the president.
Secular groups, including several unions and associations, will hold a mass demonstration on April 14 to pressure Erdogan not to stand and to nominate a less controversial candidate.
"We want a president who has embraced the main tenets of the republic and has proved it in his past," said rally organizer Ali Ercan.
If he does not run himself, Erdogan could nominate moderate figures such as Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul, Mehmet Aydin, the minister in charge of religious affairs, or lawmaker Koksal Toptan. Their wives do not wear Islamic headscarves.
Sezer, a former High Court judge, has been criticized for appearing distant and uncaring. But a survey published in Milliyet newspaper this week showed that nearly 65 percent of Turks said they approved of his presidency. More than half of the respondents said Sezer was right or partially right to harbor concerns over the future of Turkey's secular system.