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The man splitting Turkish society

  • Story Highlights
  • Abdullah Gul, Turkey's Foreign Minister, highly likely to become next president
  • Secular Turks wary of Gul's Islamist past despite his presidential qualities
  • Gul oversaw bid to join EU and championed political and human rights reforms
  • Secularists, including the army, derailed first bid to have Gul elected president
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ANKARA, Turkey (Reuters) -- A photograph showing a father's joy at his daughter's graduation would normally go unremarked, but this particular picture -- and the outrage it sparked -- says much about the anxiety some Turks feel about Abdullah Gul.

Abdullah Gul confirming he will stand as a candidate for president in a vote by parliament this month.

Gul, Turkey's foreign minister who on Tuesday announced he would run for the presidency, recently attended the ceremony at Ankara's Bilkent University with his daughter Kubra wearing the Muslim headscarf, which is banned in schools and public offices.

The picture was further proof for Turkey's secular elite, including its powerful army generals, that Gul and his ruling AK Party are itching to dismantle the secular state established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Gul strongly rejects such claims.

Now Turks are digesting the strong likelihood that Gul, who served in a cabinet ousted by the army 10 years ago for being too Islamist, will follow in the steps of the revered Ataturk and become Turkey's next president.

Parliament, where the AK Party has a big majority, will elect the president in a series of votes starting on August 20. Ironically, even ardent secularists acknowledge that Gul has the right experience and personal qualities to be a fine president.

A calm, courteous diplomat -- with more than a passing resemblance to actor George Clooney -- the stocky, ever-smiling, mustachioed Gul has overseen Turkey's bid to join the European Union and championed political and human rights reforms.

Unlike Turkey's current president, the austere and reclusive Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Gul speaks fluent English and has good personal relations with EU, U.S. and Middle East leaders.

But the secularists shudder at the thought of somebody with an Islamist past becoming president and commander in chief of the second largest army in NATO, taking the salute from generals with his headscarfed wife Hayrunisa by his side.

Such symbolism matters hugely in overwhelmingly Muslim but secular Turkey, whose Westernized elite considers public manifestations of piety -- such as the headscarf -- an embarrassing reminder of the country's past backwardness.

But the presidency is about more than symbolism. Although parliament has most power, the president can veto laws once and appoints many top judges and university rectors, pillars of the secular order.

Secularists fear Gul as president would promote Islamist-minded candidates to key positions, gradually undermining Ataturk's strict separation of state and religion.

They recall how Hayrunisa Gul once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to strike down Turkey's headscarf ban, though she dropped her case when her husband entered politics.

"(With Gul as president) Turkey would be a very different place in five to 10 years' time," Deniz Baykal, leader of the secularist Republican People's Party, said this week.

"Turkey would become a country in which the political balances were changing very fast, in which the Middle East identity would become more pronounced," he said.

The secularists, including the army, derailed the AK Party's first bid in May to have Gul elected president, a move that forced Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to call early parliamentary elections that the party won decisively on July 22.

Gul, who served briefly as prime minister when the AK Party first swept to power in November 2002 and has been foreign minister since March 2003, says people should judge him by his pro-Western, pro-EU record.

Analysts expect Gul to boost Turkey's global profile. "He will represent Turkey very actively as president. He will be like (the late President Turgut) Ozal, traveling the world, opening up new opportunities for Turkey," said Ibrahim Kalin of the pro-government SETA think-tank.

Gul, 56, was born in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri, an industrial hub known for its conservative, pious outlook. He studied economics at Istanbul University and did post-graduate studies in Britain, in London and Exeter.

Gul later worked at the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia before entering parliament for the Islamist Welfare Party in 1991. He served as minister of state and as spokesman for the government ejected by the generals in 1997. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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