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Abdullah Gül: The Man Who Would be Turkey's President

After causing Turkey's biggest political crisis in a decade, Abdullah Gül on Monday again failed to be elected president in the first round of voting by falling short of the two-thirds majority necessary to win.

Portrait of Abdullah Gül

Gül's opponents have accused him of plotting to dismantle Turkey's secular state

Turkey's parliament is to pick a new president this month after the country's secular opposition, backed by the military, derailed a previous election in April because of objections to the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül.

Following its decisive victory in the July 22 elections, the AKP has re-nominated Gül for the presidency. The Turkish parliament will choose the new president in a series of up to four votes, the first of was held on Monday.

In the first round of voting, Gül received 341 votes from the 550-seat house, 26 short of the two-thirds majority of 367 needed in the first round. The second round of voting is scheduled for Friday.

Gül, a former Islamist, hopes to placate those who opposed him in the April elections by expressing his commitment to Turkey's secular constitution.

"The constitution will be my guide," Gül said during the announcement of his second bid to become Turkey's new president last week. "The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state based on the rule of law. My primary objective will be to protect and further strengthen these principles…"

Thousands protest against Islamisation

Turkish protestors waving the Turkish flag

Thousands protested in support of secularism

The ruling AKP's first nomination of Gül to the presidency sparked Turkey's most serious political crisis in a decade, with hundreds of thousands of protestors rallying in the big cities in support of secularism. The military also weighed in and warned that it would defend secularism at all costs.

The AKP was forced to call early elections and on July 22 the Islamist-rooted party won a decisive victory.

According to Saban Disli, the vice chairman of the AKP, the election results were also a popular vindication of Gül's presidential bid, and anything other than his re-nomination would mean acting against the will of the electorate. Disli dismissed the fears of liberal and secularists who harbor concerns over Gül's Islamist background.

"First of all Mr. Gül will be an independent president, he will be at equal distance to all political parties, all Turkish people," Disli said. "His only guideline will be the Turkish constitution. He says that he will be following up very closely what the constitution says and he will be safeguarding the Turkish constitution -- nothing more. So I think Gül will be a very good president of Turkey."

Güls background a concern to many

Portrait of Abdullah Gül

Gül cannot shake off the stigma of his Islamist past

What makes the idea of a Gül presidency so controversial in Turkey is his long history of involvement in political Islamic movements. He first became involved during his university days before joining the Islamic Development Bank, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as an economist in 1983.

After leaving the bank in 1991, he entered politics and became a deputy of the Islamist Welfare Party, rising to become state minister and spokesman in the Erbakan government in 1996. However, his ambitions were curtailed by a political campaign backed by the military which ousted the government in 1997.

Despite his political background, Gül has earned a worldwide reputation as a moderate conservative, reform-minded and pro-EU politician, particularly during the last four years as the AKP government's foreign minister.

These last few years have seen many changes in Gül's approach. During the early 90s, he was highly critical of Turkey's Western orientation and was against its possible membership to the European Union.

But, as Turkey's foreign minister, he has overseen Turkey's bid to join the EU and has championed political and economic reforms. He has also developed close working relationships with his European colleagues and has coordinated efforts to solve problems in the neighboring regions and the Middle East.

During Gul's foreign ministry, Turkey also adopted a new approach and formed closer relations with the Arab and the Muslim world.

Under Gül’s recommendation, a Turkish scholar, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, was elected as the new secretary general of Saudi dominated Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Ihsanoglu, with the support of the Turkish government, has initiated an ambitious reform agenda, to re-structure the organization, in order to make it a strong international body of Muslim countries.

A man of contradictions

Hamas delegation in Turkey

Hamas leaders were guests of the AKP in Ankara

On the other hand, despite his perceived even-handedness, Gül continues to cause concerns in the Western world.

His continued close contacts with Islamic organizations have particularly worried the US, especially after he welcomed a Hamas delegation to Ankara, presented a timid stance against Iran's nuclear program and made bellicose statements about attacking Kurdish rebels in Northern Iraq, all of which did little to convince Washington that a Gül presidency could be fully depended on.

Gül also harshly criticized the EU on Cyprus and the US on its Middle East policies; however, in both cases, he also adopted a constructive and moderate approach that enabled quickly mending the ties.

Despite these instances, Gul's overall performance in the last four years has been taken by many Western powers as evidence of his new moderate ideas.

However, at home, Turkey's secularists still believe that this is just double-speak and AKP is in fact itching to dismantle the secular character of Turkish state.

Secularists oppose Gül as president

Turkish generals

The army vows to protect the constitution at all costs

Republican People's Party (CHP) Vice Chairman Onur Oymen, who strongly opposes Gul's presidency, recently said that Gül has provided enough evidence for his opponents to believe that under his presidency, Turkey's secular state would be at risk.

"He is on the record with his views against the basic principles of our republic, starting with secularism, the separation of religion from the affairs of the state," Oymen said. "Such a person, we believe, should not be the president of Turkey."

According to Semih Idiz, a prominent Turkish columnist, Gul's past record as foreign minister is not so problematic among the eyes of Turkey's liberals and seculars. But he said it is Turkey's secular forces, including the military, who are most suspicious of Gul's Islamist past and because his wife wears a headscarf, a symbol of political Islam.

Gül with his wife, who is wearing a headscarf

Gül's Islamist past and his wife's headscarf are issues

"His performance (as the foreign minister) has been rather positive and this is the general understanding," Idiz said. "It is his Islamic background that is creating the controversy here and in particular the fact that his wife's head is covered. The secularist forces in Turkey do not want to see this because for them, it represents the collapse of the last bastion of secularism."

Idiz added that the secularist camp is increasingly concerned about the amount of power the AKP has acquired; it is currently in power, it has a strong majority in the parliament, including the prime minister and the speaker of the house and now it appears the next president could also come from the party. "The secularists say this is unacceptable," Idiz said.

AKP consolidating power

AKP supporters celebrate their party's victory

The AKP has a huge majority, large support and key roles in parliament

In the Turkish parliamentary system, policies are defined and carried out by the government, but the president also has significant power over decisions. He or she must approve every law and formal decision emerging from the parliament, as well as the appointments of key officials, including generals, governors, ambassadors and university rectors.

Secularists fear Abdullah Gül as president would promote Islamist candidates to key state institutions, gradually undermining secularism.

The AKP dismisses charges that it has a secret Islamist agenda, and describes itself as a "conservative democrat" party. But secularists point to its record in the past five years, including encouragement of religious schools, failed attempts to restrict alcohol sales and make adultery a punishable crime.

Turkey's military, which traditionally views itself as the guardian of secularism, refrained from making a hasty statement on Gül's re-nomination.

The AKP's Saban Disli has said that the military will adopt a "wait and see" approach on Abdullah Gül's presidency.

"The military as usual is showing great responsibility," Disli said. "The military's public declarations have always quoted the constitution. With the AKP having won the election with a large majority, and with Gül declaring that he will guard the secular statute of Turkey, Turkish democracy, Turkish civil rights and economic development…I think it is very important the military take this patient approach."

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