- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Turkey’s governing party avoided a crisis yesterday by naming Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul its candidate in the forthcoming presidential election.

Under the pressure of the influential military leaders and mass demonstrations, the initial presidential hopeful, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to remove his candidacy, in effect saving his continued leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his role in leading Turkey to European Union membership.

The army, still a major voice in Turkish politics, objected to Mr. Erdogan’s presidential ambition because of his previous involvement with the Islamic movement. The AKP often is accused of Islamist tendencies.

Turkey’s president “must be secular not only in words but in deeds,” said Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, armed forces chief of general staff.

The military’s objection to Mr. Erdogan was backed by outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who said Turkey’s secular system was under “unprecedented threat” from Muslim fundamentalism. Last week, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Turkish cities denounced Mr. Erdogan’s candidacy with shouts of “Turkey will remain secular.”

Mr. Erdogan has consistently denied any intention of opposing Turkey’s secular system, instilled by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the republic in 1923.

“Turkey is a democratic, secular, social state based on the rule of law,” he told party leaders last week. “No individual or group should benefit by creating tension out of these principles.”

Mr. Gul, 56, who has a moderate image, said yesterday that the president “must be loyal to secular principles.” But his candidacy is not likely to end the debate. His wife, Hayrunisa, wears an Islamic-style head scarf, and secularists oppose the idea of a woman in Islamic attire occupying the presidential palace, a secular symbol.

“His mind-set is no different than Erdogan,” the Associated Press quoted Mustafa Ozyurek, deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, as saying.

Mr. Gul defended his wife’s attire, saying, “This is an individual choice, and we must all show respect.”

The English-educated Mr. Gul is a seasoned negotiator and has been foreign minister since 2003. By nominating him, the governing party is virtually guaranteed control of the presidency when Mr. Sezer steps down May 16 after seven years in office. Under the constitution, the president is elected by parliament, where the AKP controls 353 of the 550 seats.

Mr. Gul’s candidacy also prepares the stage for parliamentary elections in November, strengthening the popularity of the AKP.

Although the president’s office is largely ceremonial, he has the right to veto legislation. With that power, Mr. Sezer has blocked a record number of bills, citing Islamic overtones.

Mr. Gul served briefly as prime minister in 2002, when Mr. Erdogan’s party was first elected to parliament. At the time, Mr. Erdogan was banned from public office, the result of several months of imprisonment for reciting an Islamist poem in 1999. Parliament later changed the law to allow Mr. Erdogan to run, and Mr. Gul stepped down.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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