Turkey elects Muslim democrat Abdullah Gul to presidency despite secularist opposition

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Abdullah Gul, the practising Muslim who has been Turkey's foreign minister for over four years, was resoundingly elected as the country's 11th president by parliament yesterday despite strong opposition from the army and militant secularists.

Mr Gul's 399 vote victory over his two rivals - who mustered 83 votes between them - followed a successful four-month struggle with Turkey's secular elite which leaves the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in full de facto control of the country's civilian political establishment.

Senior commanders of the army - whose chief of staff General Yasar Buyukanit issued an eve-of-vote warning that "centres of evil" were trying to undermine modern Turkey's founding principles - pointedly stayed away from Mr Gul's swearing in ceremony last night.

But AKP legislators broke out in applause after the results of the vote were announced and in the Cappadocian town of Kayseri, Mr Gul's socially conservative political base, thousands of cheering residents waved Turkish flags while a cannon fired 41 rounds in celebration.

And while most observers predict some tension between the country's military on the one hand, and the presidency and government on the other, there is no sign that the army will seek to overthrow what has been by any standards a formidable series of democratic triumphs by the AKP under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr Gul went out of his way in his inauguration speech to dismiss claims by secularist opponents that he and Mr Erdogan have a secret Islamist agenda by declaring: "The Turkish Republic is a democratic, secular, social state, governed by the rule of law. I will always be determined and resolved to advocate, without discrimination, each of these principles and to further strengthen them at every opportunity."

Mr Gul, whose wife, Hayrunnisa, has provoked the anger of hard-line secularists by wearing a headscarf - banned in schools universities and government offices - added that "secularism, one of the main principles of our republic, is a precondition for social peace as much as it is a liberating model for different lifestyles."

But Mr Gul - whose new office extends beyond the ceremonial as it has powers of veto beside those of appointing judges and the constitutional court, and titular oversight of the army - is expected to allow through a series of AKP reform plans which have - or would have - been vetoed by his staunchly secularist predecessor, Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

These could include an as yet unfinalised blueprint for changes to the constitution as well as legislation to assist the AKP's ambition for Turkish accession to the EU. Although hopes of a negotiated agreement have recently faded, they have been modestly lifted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy appearing to soften his outright opposition to Turkish membership on Monday.

And while the US had refrained from following the EU by condemning a statement by the Turkish military last April aimed at trying to forestall Mr Gul's candidacy, the State Department spokesman Tom Casey said: "We welcome this exercise in Turkish democracy. It continues the course of democratic development in that country."

The struggling opposition secularist CHC party repeated the boycott of the vote which in an earlier round triggered the deadlock that led Mr Erdogan to call the July election, which the AKP won by a landslide.

One CHC MP, Kemal Klicdaroglu, said: "The Prime Minister, President and Speaker are all from the same party. So we wonder if Abdullah Gul will embrace everyone or is he going to align with the government? This we will see in time."

Debate uncovered

An imposing statue of Kemal Ataturk dominates the front of the Ulus shopping centre in a poorer district of Ankara. Yet residents here were enthusiastic about the new president despite his opponents' fears that he will undermine the legacy of the revered secular founder of modern Turkey.

"They want to keep their power" said Murat Gular, 27 of the critics. "But they have failed. I am very happy that [Abdullah Gul] is President. He represents the real Turkey. We are a Muslim society. What's wrong with that?"

Most women here yesterday wore headscarves, similar to Mr Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, below. Havva Duger, 19, complained she would have to shed hers to attend university. "I think [Mr Gul]is a decent person and I trust him. I don't think the election was about religion, and I don't think he is against secularism."

Staunch secularists like taxi driver Kirksal Gular, 40, were having none of this. "I am very against Gul," he said. "I am a Kemalist. Turkey will not become Iran, but I think there is something dark about him if you look into his background." In the middle-class Cankaya Mall, Nigar Ozturk, 71, was cheered by Monday's army statement denouncing " centres of evil" undermining secularism. "I think he will impose religion and that should be a matter only between people and God."

Suna Akchac, 54, acknowledged an improving economy, but was concerned that "the position of women could be thrown backwards". But her sister Suzan Akyuz, 64 - her head uncovered - disagreed. "We have to accept the realities of Turkey. Many people are not religious but they are traditional. The mothers of many soldiers who have been killed wear headscarves. What matters is not what's on your head but what's in it."