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

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.

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.

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"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."

Last Thursday, outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist who has rejected numerous AKP candidates in the past, surprised the party by leaving approval of a new cabinet – without looking at the list – to the new president. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the step a positive "gesture" by Mr. Sezer, ceding authority to his successor, though some interpreted it as a rejection outright of the AKP cabinet.

Gul bristles Turkey's secularists

The choice of Gul is still raising hackles. The main opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), lost seats in parliament, but was able to stymie the first Gul bid by boycotting the vote and ensuring lack of a quorum.

The CHP said it will boycott the presidential vote, and its top officials warned that a Gul presidency will hasten the "degeneration of Turkey into a theocratic state" and put the regime "at risk." The CHP also vows to boycott the presidential palace if Gul wins.

But another nationalist party, which returned to parliament after a five-year hiatus, says it will take part in the first round of voting Monday. If Gul is not elected in the first two rounds that require two-thirds support, he will almost certainly win on the third round, which requires only a simple majority – a low hurdle for the AKP, which holds 341 seats in the 550-seat house.

Some analysts expected the AKP to choose a different candidate more acceptable to the military and secular elite, especially after Mr. Erdogan heralded the election result with pledges of "compromise."

But the election, which was held early because of the political crisis, was seen by many voters as a referendum on the Gul candidacy. Gul said the decision to run again – despite the likelihood of more tension with nationalists and the military – recognized "support seen from the masses" such that he was "keeping a promise made to the people."

Indeed, Gul often campaigned with the popular premier Erdogan, eliciting cheers whenever he mentioned his bid for the presidency – a post that has long been a secular bastion in Turkey.

"I know you are here because they blocked the presidential election," Gul boomed over an election rally in the eastern city of Diyarbakir in June. "This crowd would have something to say about the presidential election."

Such support was proven to be much more widely spread than the views of flag-waving nationalists who vowed at their spring rallies that Gul's presence in the Cankaya presidential palace would prompt street violence and even a march on Cankaya to unseat him.

The military "are not [just] disappointed, they are shocked. They got a strong slap on their faces and it's better for them now to keep silent [or the negative] reaction will be much stronger by the people," says Bagci. "Turks love the military, but don't like to live under a military regime," he adds, paraphrasing a former Turkish minister.

Promising that his "goal will be to rise to the level of modern civilization that [founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk foresaw," Gul says he will reinvigorate stalled Turkish efforts to join the EU.

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