Parliament failed to elect a president in the first round of voting, delivering a humiliating blow to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit who secured promises from every party leader to support his candidate.
Observers said that many legislators voted for members of their own party and are expected to support Ecevit's nominee in later balloting. Parliament votes again on Monday.
Ecevit is supporting Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a top judge who has spoken of the need for democratic reforms and increased freedom of expression.
Sezer received 281 votes, falling short of the 367 required for election in the first round of balloting. There are 550 seats in parliament.
The other votes were split between nine other candidates. The candidate to come in second, Nevzat Yalcintas, received only 61 votes.
Several candidates are expected to drop out of the race in the coming days.
The vote comes only two weeks after Ecevit was unable to muster enough votes to amend the constitution and enable President Suleyman Demirel to run for another term. Demirel's term expires on May 16.
"The leaders, who received a blow during the debate on the constitution, will receive an even bigger blow if they fail to have Sezer elected in the first round and make their trustworthiness questionable," Yeni Safak, a pro-Islamic newspaper, wrote before the voting.
Ecevit nominated Sezer as a compromise candidate who was able to appeal to all parties in parliament.
Earlier this week, the leaders of all five parties agreed to support Sezer's nomination. But Thursday's vote was a secret ballot and the earlier agreement did not require party leaders to force deputies to vote for Sezer.
Presidents in Turkey are elected by parliament.
"I don't even consider the probability that Sezer won't be elected," Ecevit said late Wednesday.
It is likely that Sezer will be elected in the second or third round of voting. In the third round, candidates only need a simple majority to be elected.
Sezer is the head of the constitutional court and is expected to be a strong advocate of democratic reforms if elected. The presidency in Turkey is a largely ceremonial post, but presidents are often powerbrokers in times of crises and often exert strong moral influence.
The European Union, which has been pressing Turkey to carry out reforms before it can join the group, is likely to be pleased with Sezer's nomination.
Sezer has called for reforms to the constitution, which was written after the 1980 military coup, saying it restricts freedoms.
He also has questioned the military's purge of officers suspected of links with Islamic groups, decisions in which officers have no right of appeal.
Those positions have led to praise from the Islamic Virtue Party, which faces being banned for challenging Turkey's secular system.
But that has raised fears that the military, which regards political Islam as one of the greatest threats to the secular state, may be wary of Sezer's candidacy.
None of Turkey's top generals attended a reception earlier this week hosted by Sezer.
"According to some, the new presidential candidate is not as secular and republican as he is made out to be," said Bekir Coskun, a commentator for the Hurriyet newspaper.
The army has seized power three times since 1960 and once forced an Islamic party from power.Reuse content