TURKEY ELECTS EX-ISLAMIST PRESIDENT
by Hilmi Toros
Turkey's Islamic Party Wins Election Mandate
(IPS) ISTANBUL --
concerns by the ever-watchful military and the secularists, Turkey's parliament elected foreign minister Abdullah Gul as the first Islamic-rooted president of the 83-year-old republic on Tuesday.
Along with him, Turkey also gets a First Lady who may wear the Islamic headscarf as the official hostess at the Cankaya presidential palace. The palace has so far banned such attire.
Gul, whose candidacy put up by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in April sparked military and secularist opposition, and led to early parliamentary election Jul. 22, received 339 votes from the 448 deputies who voted, way above the 276 needed.
Gul won in the third round of voting when only a simple majority of the 550-member parliament was needed. He failed to obtain the required 367 votes, or two-thirds majority, in earlier rounds.
The election of Gul, a former firebrand of banned Islamist parties who now vows allegiance to the secular constitution, was a setback for the military and secularists who say Gul and his AKP party may still have an Islamist agenda for a NATO member country and an official candidate for full European Union membership.
The military opposed Gul's candidacy the day he was picked by his party Apr. 27 through a midnight announcement on its website in what came to be called an "e-warning." The military asked for "deeds, not just words" in upholding the secular constitution.
The crisis that followed led to elections where Gul's candidacy became a major campaign issue. In a sharp rebuff to the military, since dubbed an "e (election)-response," the electorate returned the Islamic-rooted AKP to power. The party upped its vote from 34 to 47 percent.
The military, which has overturned four governments since 1950, abstained from any comment after Gul's triumph. It had issued another statement on the eve of the parliamentary vote to warn against continuing religious activities -- without naming Gul or his party.
More significantly, the military brass did not attend the swearing-in ceremony of Gul as the eleventh president of the Turkish Republic. The President is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, even if nominally.
"The military couldn't influence the parliamentary or presidential elections, but it will watch, as it always does, and could get involved if Gul or the ruling party veers toward an Islamic agenda," Olcay Celik, an Istanbul resident, told IPS.
Turkey's constitution empowers the military to defend the country both from external and internal threats. But the constitution may be changed since the AKP, which now controls parliament, the government and the presidency, has plans for a new "civilian" constitution.
Gul, 57, an economist by education -- with a stint at an Islamic bank in Saudi Arabia -- is known to be soft-spoken and temperate, in sharp contrast to the vocal and argumentative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP.
Fluent in English and Arabic, Gul has been a deputy since 1991. He was a member of now defunct Islamist parties before joining Erdogan to form the AKP in 2001. He portrayed it as a "conservative" party, and rejected labels such as "Muslim Democrats."
Gul married Hayrunnisa when she was only 15 and he was 30. Her head attire is a matter of controversy since Islamic headgear is banned in public offices and universities. Any woman who wears it has been left out of official receptions at the presidential palace. Now she has to host them -- and it's still up in the air if the military or the opposition CHP will attend a reception that she may host wearing the Islamic headscarf.
The Turkish media has carried reports that Mrs. Gul may actually bare her hair at some receptions, or wear a partial headscarf. Gul's daughter circumvented rules preventing headscarves at universities by wearing a wig over her headscarf.
Mrs. Gul took the Turkish state to the European human rights tribunal claiming that her freedom to wear the attire of her choice had been denied. She dropped the suit when her husband became foreign minister.
After taking oath, Gul said in his maiden speech as President that his election had "strengthened democracy" in Turkey. He vowed to "embrace all" and be "neutral" as opposed to being a party man. He characterized Turkey as "a democratic, secular state based on the rule of law."
But there are lingering doubts. "I have yet to see that he has changed except in words. I'm still suspicious," Gulsun Zeytinoglu, a woman activist and former board member of the Women's enterpreneurs Association told IPS.
As President, Gul will have largely ceremonial functions, with limited powers compared to the Prime Minister. But he still designates prime ministers, approves or vetoes Parliament's statutes and appointments to key executive posts, and names university rectors. (END/2007)
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