A religious Turk vaults to power

Turkey's election may make Abdullah Gul the next prime minister.

Abdullah Gul bounds into each shop on a main drag of this central Turkish city, extending a hearty handshake, a pearly smile, and the greeting of politicians everywhere.

"How are you doing?" he asks cheerily. "Not so great," is a common reply. In a country in its deepest economic slump since 1945, few businessmen in the heartland are as ebullient as Mr. Gul.

"Hold on ... things are going to change soon," vows Gul, who many here expect will be the next prime minister.

Early returns Sunday show that Gul's Justice and Development Party, or AK Party had 34 percent of the vote, and enough seats in parliament to form a government without coalition partners.

As a result, Turkey will see the ascension of an untested political party with an Islamist pedigree at a moment in history when US military intervention in neighboring Iraq and entrance to the European Union loom as large as the imposing 6th century Byzantine fortress walls over Kayseri, Gul's hometown.

Gul's AK Party's roots in two banned Islamic political parties has had Turkey's secular establishment concerned enough to bar AK's controversial chairman and founder, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from standing as a candidate for parliament. That puts Gul, one of the party's cofounders as one of the most likely men to become prime minister.

It could take days or weeks for a new government to jell. But initial returns show that AK took more than 30 percent of the vote – a feat in an election with 18 political parties.

Gul, who holds a PhD in economics, speaks fluent English, and is known for putting a moderate face on the Islamically oriented political camp. "An AK Party government will contribute to world peace," Gul said in an interview on Thursday. "We can prove that a country with a Muslim identity can be transparent, can be democratic, can be comfortable in the world." He summed up the secret to their success: "We have the grass roots. We are friendly with the people. We are not elitists."

Indeed, Gul's modest beginnings are here, in this city of about 1 million known mostly for its business sense and spicy sausages. Gul's mother taught, and his father still operates a factory that produces small electrical items.

But Gul, an eldest son, had bigger plans in mind. When he was in high school, one of his closest friends recalls, he helped form a literary circle. "I was appointed to read the Russian classics and Abdullah Gul was appointed to read French classics," says Bekir Yildiz, the mayor of Kocasinan, one of the three municipalities that make up Kayseri. They also read Turkish writers – from Islamist to left-wingers – as well as a host of Persian and Arabic philosophers.

They were teenage boys thirsty for news from the outside world – and who, until they set off for Istanbul University in 1968, had never seen a television set or known anyone who left Turkey.

"We were determined to know both East and West. We were curious about the world," Mr. Yildiz explains. "I can't say we were the brightest or first in school. But the history teachers were fed up with us because we knew too much and were asking too many questions."

Reaching into his desk, Yildiz pulls out faded black-and-white photographs of Gul, himself, and other young men, their hair in early-Beatles cuts, alongside banners of the National Turkish Student Union, a group they founded once they got to university.

Erdogan, who was about five years younger, was also part of their crowd. "We were between the revolutionaries and the nationalists," Yildiz says. "In those days, the winds of change were about and we wanted to gain knowledge so we could do something for the country."

That's why, he says, when Gul entered politics nearly 20 years later, first running for Parliament in 1991, old friends flocked to his side. "We knew that he would have the cure and the solution for Turkey."

But Turks who are mistrustful of the AK Party's agenda say the party purposefully downplays its Islamist agenda. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, whose party is about to disappear from power, warned as much last week. One Ankara newspaper columnist friendly with Gul says Gul and those around him have leaned toward Islamist politics for over 30 years, and aren't about to change.

Yildiz, now also an AK party member, says that even in their student days, they tried to avoid being tagged as fundamentalists. "We used to call ourselves 'simple believers,' " he says. "It means we are just regular Muslim people who believe in God. It's an important distinction," he adds. When you say 'religious,' it scares everyone. Even us."

Gul went on to study for a master's in economics – which took him to England for research – and then back to Istanbul for his PhD. He landed a job with the Islamic Development Bank, which earned him years of postings abroad, the longest of them in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from 1983 to 1991.

It was during a working trip to the US about 12 years ago when he met Erkan Topal, then living in New York and now serving as a financial advisor to Gul. Mr. Topal says Gul was eager to better understand American viewpoints, and Topal was surprised to find an intellectually open man like him working with Erbakan.

"If there was a problem, he was one of the pioneers to solve it. He has that kind of charisma. I've never seen him get angry," says Topal.

Mild-mannered and with a soft, gravely voice, Gul's friends say his one short-coming is that he likes to please everyone. "Abdullah Gul," says Yildiz, "is the kind of person who doesn't have 'no' in his dictionary."

If that is that case, it may lend credence to concerns that even if Gul is prime minister, Erdogan will be calling the shots. Yet another theory says that since Gul has a following of his own – not to mention a better reputation in secular and foreign circles – Erdogan will work to keep him out of the prime minister's office and instead put in someone he can more easily control.

"Of course, we respect the chairman and the party's policies, because we formed this policy together," says Gul, while the call to prayer from a nearby mosque drifts in the open window. "When we founded the party we had to decide – is it a religious party?"

The decision, he says, was based on the failure of previous Islamic parties. This one, he says, is a party made up of conservative Muslims.

"We don't call ourselves an Islamic party. Religion is a universal thing, and a party is a political thing – and this should not be linked to religion," says Gul, who wears a neat suit and striped tie, which he takes off after a vigorous round of campaigning in the sun.

Among some of the most controversial issues in this campaign has been what women wear. Women are banned from wearing Muslim headscarves in government offices, schools, and universities, under a law the AK Party has promised to change – a pledge that makes secularists bristle.

"That kind of ban cannot go together with a perfect democracy," Gul says. "But the first priority is not that. The first priority is economic issues." He says an AK Party-led government will lower interest rates, make structural reforms, and cooperate with the International Monetary Fund which gave Turkey a $16 loan deal to bail it out of its recession. He says he is also committed to getting Turkey accepted into the EU.

Other foreign policy issues, however, could be a bit more complicated. "We cannot disregard our beliefs," he says. "We will look for ways to improve relations with Islamic countries. We should have better trade relations with Iran."

AKP's outlook on Iraq mirrors most opinion in Turkey, where the main concern is whether the Kurds in Northern Iraq could use the opportunity of war to carve out an independent state there.

"The integrity of Iraq is very important for us," he says. "The opinion polls show that the Turkish people doesn't want war, and this is very clear." In case of a decision to attack or invade Iraq, Washington will be dependent on the Incerlik base in Turkey.

Other solutions to the Iraq crisis, he says, can surely be found. "If Muslims do something wrong, we don't justify it and say it is good," he says of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "Whoever does wrong is wrong."

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