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Abdullah Gul Poised to Become Turkey's President Despite Secularist Reservations


Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is poised to become Turkey's president on Tuesday, which would make him the first head of state with a background in political Islam in a country with strong secularist principles. As Dorian Jones in Istanbul reports for VOA, Gul's election would mark a major triumph for his Islamic-rooted government over the secular establishment, which blocked his initial bid for president over fears that he planned to dilute secular traditions.

Gul, 56, has been a controversial figure in Turkish politics because of his Islamist roots, but supporters say he is more than qualified to be president.

"Abdullah Gul is a blessing for Turkey we would be so fortunate to have him as a president. He is a great guy he is open-minded, he likes consensus," said Nursune Memecan, a member of parliament for the Justice and Development Party.

And it is those skills, according to political observers, that gave him entre into negotiations with the European Union over membership.

Fluent in both Arabic and English his supporters argue that he's well equipped to fight for Turkey in the international arena.

One hitch, however, is his devotion to Islam.

Gul started in politics in an Islamist party that was later banned by the courts, and despite his support for sweeping political reforms that helped Turkey clinch EU membership talks, many secularists remain concerned about his politics.

Some one million people demonstrated last April against Gul's first presidential bid. At the time, the powerful army, which sees itself as the guardian of Turkey's secularism, issued a thinly veiled threat against him, warning it would not hesitate to intervene if the secular state was threatened.

To resolve the crisis, Gul's Justice and Development Party called early elections.

Last month, ruling party supporters celebrated the party's landslide victory chanting Gul for president.

Despite the ruling party's victory, political columnist Nuray Mert says Gul still remains a divisive candidate. "Everybody is looking forward to a second term which is stable economically, but also politically. And for political stability there must be a compromise in the issue of the presidency, and Gul can hardly be a name of compromise and consensus."

Gul has been working hard to build bridges and in announcing his bid earlier this month to become president, he offered an olive branch to his secular critics.

"My priority is to follow the Turkish constitution and its principles of secularism and the rule of law. My guide, he said, will always be upholding the constitution," he said.

But, Turkey's secular elite are still skeptical and the fact his wife Hayrunisa wears a headscarf has frequently been cited as a cause of concern.

The headscarf, seen by secularists as a threat to the separation of state and religion, is banned from public offices and schools, though more than half of Turkish women wear it.

In addition, there are also fears about the Turkish president's power to veto legislation and appoint key members of the turkish state including constitutional court judges and the head of the army. So far, critics feel Gul has failed to allay secularist fears that he would sign into law any legislation passed by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a close ally, without concern for the separation of religion and politics.

But political scientist Ayhan Akar of Istanbul's Bilgi University, says such fears maybe unfounded. "Abdullah Gul is not going to be a yes man. He is a tough guy, this man has certain political values. He going to be a more principled president taking care of checks and balances in the political system of Turkey. Especially after all these crisis, he is going to be an extremely careful man," he said.

The country's generals are expected to keep a careful eye on Gul as president. Monday, the powerful military issued a statement saying secularism in Turkey is under attack. The statement by the chief of the military said that "our nation has been watching the behavior of centers of evil who systematically try to corrode the secular nature of the Turkish Republic."

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