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Controversial Turkish foreign minister Gul relaunches presidential bid

After his Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party won July elections, Abdullah Gul is relaunching the presidential bid that sparked a national crisis in April.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2007



ISTANBUL, Turkey

Vowing to "protect" secularism despite his Islamist past, Turkey's controversial foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, is set to relaunch his presidential bid Monday, as the country's newly elected parliament begins the first round of voting to select a head of state. This time, victory for Mr. Gul looks all but certain.

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Last April, the first attempt to install Gul as president sparked a political crisis and large public protests amid fears from nationalists and warnings of intervention from the powerful military that Gul – a man of faith whose wife wears an Islamic head scarf – would erode Turkey's secular traditions.

But voters on July 22 did not see it that way. In parliamentary elections, Gul was handed an unprecedented mandate with almost 1 in every 2 Turks voting for his Islam-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party.

"This is a new period in Turkish history, definitely," says Huseyin Bagci at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, adding that the military has been "shocked" by the outcome. The president is also commander in chief of the armed forces.

In his first public reaction since the vote, last week the head of Turkey's military, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, would not discuss the military's past objections to Gul. "All has been said," according to the general, adding that the new president should "adhere in earnest and not just in words to the ideal of a secular state."

A 'candidate of the people'

For Gul, a 46.6 percent vote for AKP proves him to be "the candidate of the people," says Mr. Bagci, whose recent visits to cities across Turkey have convinced him that "the man on the street … supports him with a great majority."

"The Turkish way of life in the last five years is becoming more and more religious in practice," says Bagci. "But politically speaking, Turkey is still a secular state, an open society with the rule of law. This is the Turkish paradox."

Financial markets surged and Turkish and foreign businessmen breathed a sigh of relief after AKP's victory, hoping for a continuation of five years of economic reform to bring Turkey into the European Union (EU).

Since confirming his nomination last week, Gul has been on a charm offensive, lobbying political and labor leaders for support and trying to calm their concerns over his Islamist past. By week's end, he had garnered a host of endorsements. "If I am elected, the Constitution will be my guide," Gul vowed. "Secularism is one of the basic principles of the Constitution, and I will work to protect it."

"There should not be any hesitation or worries," Gul said. "I have been in politics for 15 years as a minister, foreign minister, prime minister. I held the most important portfolios of Turkey, was involved in the most serious problems … and officials learned what kind of person I am."

As foreign minister, he was "involved in many important joint projects with the military headquarters; we have shared much work … we have worked in harmony," says Gul. "My wife's head scarf is her own personal choice [and] is not going to be a topic."

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