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Fresh clash looms over Turkey presidency

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, once again aiming to become the country’s president, sought support from opposition leaders Tuesday although some parties fear he will undermine secular traditions and provoke the ire of the powerful military.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Turkish presidential hopeful whose candidacy raised fears about the possible blurring of the line between mosque and state said Tuesday his goals would be strengthening secularism and the country’s bid for European Union membership.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spoke after submitting to parliament his application to run for president, pressing ahead with a candidacy that triggered a political crisis and forced the government to call early elections. He is almost certain to win the presidency.

The powerful Turkish military and secular parties fear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s and Gul’s Justice and Development Party would use control of both parliament and the presidency to chip away at the separation of state and religion and put an Islamic stamp on the state by appointing Islamic-minded officials.

Turkey’s leading secular party, the Republican People’s Party, will boycott the presidential vote because Gul’s Islamic past poses a threat to the secular regime, deputy chairman Mustafa Ozyurek said. The party’s boycott will not be enough to stop his election, but it signals the distress felt by the military-backed secular establishment regarding the candidacy of Gul, an observant Muslim.

Ozyurek said his party would also boycott ceremonies and trips attended by Gul, if he is elected. This would demonstrate for the first time a crisis of confidence between the Republican People’s Party — established by the founder of the modern and secular republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — and the president.

Both Gul and Erdogan reject the Islamic fundamentalist label, citing their promotion of sweeping reforms as a means of advancing Turkey’s European Union bid. On the other hand, they have also actively sought to improve ties with the Islamic world.

Gul said at a news conference his main goal would be “to protect secularism.

“No one should have any concerns,” about that, Gul said.

Erdogan’s party won a majority of seats in parliament in the early elections last month. But it failed to secure the two-thirds it will need to approve a presidential candidate alone during the first two rounds of parliamentary voting, which starts next Monday.

But Gul is almost certain to be elected by a simple majority in the third round of voting on Aug. 28 because the Nationalist Action Party pledged to help achieve a necessary quorum to hold the vote.

Although largely ceremonial, the job of president is critical to overall control of the state. The president holds the power to veto legislation and appoints high-level officials, including ambassadors and chief judges to Turkey’s top courts.

Gul’s candidacy triggered a political crisis months ago, forcing the government to hold early parliamentary elections. The military has threatened to step into the election process — drawing criticism from the EU and the United States for threatening to interfere with democracy — while the Republican People’s Party blocked the parliamentary voting.

Erdogan decided to once again nominate Gul for president Monday night, apparently to please supporters whose votes carried the party to power with 46.6 percent of the popular vote in July 22 elections.

“We can’t digest it,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a Republican official, said. “We think someone who has problems with the regime of the Turkish Republic should not sit in the presidential seat.”

The president is also considered to be the commander in chief of the armed forces and the fiercely secular military had publicly declared its opposition to Gul.

Gul’s wife wears an Islamic-style headscarf, which many secular Turks regard as a symbol of political Islam and cite as one reason why he should not become president.

If Gul is elected, one of his first big tests would be whether he would take his wife to an important military ceremony on Aug.

30. Islamic head scarves are banned from military clubs and military ceremonies.

Gul said his wife’s headscarf is a matter of personal preference. “I am going to be president, she is not,” he said. “Nothing is illegal.”