Gul pledges to safeguard secularism

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul vowed Tuesday to defend the country’s secular traditions as he announced a fresh bid for the presidency despite deep-rooted opposition over his Islamist past.“Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state based on the rule of law,” he told reporters after submitting his name to parliament. “Protecting and strengthening these principles would be my first priority.””Everyone should rest assured that I would carry out my duty in full impartiality, embracing all citizens,” said Gul whose first bid for the post earlier this year triggered a political crisis.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the conservative offshoot of a now-banned Islamist movement, holds a solid majority in parliament, which elects the president. That means it can easily secure Gul’s election.

Gul’s nomination back in April prompted an opposition boycott of the vote as well as a warning from the powerful military that it stood ready to protect the Muslim country’s secular system.

Millions of Turks demonstrated against the prospect of a president from the AKP, which secularists accuse of harbouring ambitions to erode the separation of state and religion.

In a later news conference solely for the foreign press, Gul denied the possibility of fresh tensions with the army if he was elected president.

“Absolutely not,” Gul said when asked if he would get the cold shoulder from the army if he got the job. “I have always worked very closely with them during my tenure as foreign minister.”

Hardline secularists also hate the idea of a veiled first lady – Gul’s wife wears the Islamic headscarf, which they see as a symbol of political Islam.

“My wife’s headscarf is not an issue for me,” Gul told members of the foreign press. “It is an individual choice. Besides I am going to be president, she is not.”

As a way out of the April crisis, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called early elections on July 22, in which the AKP won a resounding victory. Gul portrayed the result as a popular vindication of his presidential aspirations.

Parliament is scheduled to hold its first presidential vote on August 20, with the process carrying over a maximum four ballots.

In the first two rounds, a candidate requires a two-thirds majority, or 367 votes, to be elected.

With 341 seats in the 550-member house, the AKP can be sure of electing Gul on the third ballot when an absolute majority of 276 votes is required.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has 98 seats, said that it would shun the presidential vote on grounds of Gul’s Islamist past as it did back in April, preventing the house from reaching the necessary quorum and blocking Gul’s election.

“The election of an anti-republican person to the post would jeopardise the future of the republic,” said CHP deputy chairman Mustafa Ozyurek after a party meeting.

“The process of turning Turkey into religious state in term of its culture, economy, media and way of life will be accelerated if Gul is elected president,” he added. “Thus, we do not feel it necessary to attend the parliamentary vote”.

The CHP boycott is unlikely to be effective this time. The second largest opposition group, the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has promised to attend the presidential votes with its 70 lawmakers, thus ensuring that Gul will not fall foul of the quorum rules.

The AKP dismisses charges that it has a secret Islamist agenda.

It has pledged commitment to secularism and carried out reforms that led to strong economic growth and ensured the start of membership talks with the European Union.

But sceptics point to its opposition to a headscarf ban in universities and public offices, its encouragement of religious schools and failed attempts to restrict alcohol sales and make adultery a jailable offence.

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