Turkish army warns of 'centres of evil' over Gul

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Turkey's parliament is on the point of infuriating the country's powerful military and much of its secular public this afternoon by electing Abdullah Gul, the Foreign Minister and a practising Muslim, as President.

The army signalled its displeasure yesterday by choosing the eve of the vote to publish a declaration by its Chief-of-Staff Yasar Buyukanit, that "our nation has been watching the behaviour of centres of evil who systematically try to corrode the secular nature of the Turkish Republic".

The election of Mr Gul, a 56-year-old economist who has a similar Islamic background to his close ally, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will mark a further advance for their ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which last month secured a second term with almost 47 per cent of the national vote.

Mr Gul is seen in most of Europe as a democrat of moderate inclinations who strongly supports Turkey's accession to the EU and whose election as head of state - an office with substantial veto powers - is likely to advance the slow process of meeting the conditions set for entry.

But his candidacy has stirred up strong opposition from the army, which sees itself as the guardian of the unequivocally non-religious constitution enshrined more than 80 years ago by the country's founding father, Kemal Ataturk.

"Nefarious plans to ruin Turkey's secular and democratic nature emerge in different forms every day," General Buyukanit, said in his statement to mark the annual Victory Day on Thursday. "The military will, just as it has so far, keep its determination to guard social, democratic and secular Turkey."

The tone was similar to that of a statement issued by the general staff at the end of April after Mr Gul triggered mass protests by secular Turks by originally announcing his intention to run as President.

Since the general election - which was called by Mr Erdogan after the opposition Republican People's Party (BHP) created deadlock by blocking Mr Gul's election as President - the army, while not resiling from its earlier statements, had largely refrained from intervening publicly until yesterday. The AKP's victory was partly attributed to the rapid growth - at annual levels of around seven per cent - in an economy which was on the brink of collapse in the late Nineties.

Diplomats here have tended to discount fears of a coup by the army - which has dislodged four governments since the 1960s - but expect Mr Gul's election to be a source of continuing friction with the military, which has already seen a few of its powers to intervene in civilian life curtailed by the government - for example by the reduction of its presence on the National Security Council.

Much of the focus of popular secular discontent has been the fact that Mr Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, wears a headscarf in public, long a key symbol for religious women which is officially banned in schools, universities and public offices. She is already under near-irresistible pressure to avoid creating a flashpoint by staying away from Thursday's Victory Day ceremony, which commemorates the decisive defeat of the Greek army at the Battle of Dumlupinar in 1922.

Mrs Gul, who like her husband speaks good English and Arabic, took a case to the European Court of Human Rights in 2002 after being denied admission to university while wearing a headscarf but abandoned it when Mr Gul became Foreign Minister because the Foreign Ministry was defending the case.

The army's last warning statement in April was strongly condemned by the EU as an unwarranted interference in the civil democratic process but the US administration remained conspicuously silent. It is less than clear whether this was because of doubts about even a democratic and moderate Islamic regime in Ankara, or because of lively fears that alienating the Turkish military could threaten yet more conflict in Iraq.