ANKARA (Reuters) – Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was elected president by Turkey’s parliament on Tuesday, the first former Islamist to take the post in the secular but predominantly Muslim country’s modern history.
Armed forces chief General Yasar Buyukanit said on Monday he saw “centres of evil” seeking to undermine the secular republic, a statement suggesting the army would not stand on the sidelines if it saw the separation between religion and state threatened.
“Abdullah Gul in the third round obtained an absolute majority and was elected the 11th president of Turkey with 339 votes,” parliament speaker Koksal Toptan said after the vote.
The Islamist-rooted AK Party has 341 seats in the 550-seat chamber. Two other candidates also stood for president.
Gul has established himself as a respected diplomat since the AK Party was first elected in 2002, securing the launch of Turkey’s European Union entry talks. He pledges to be a leader for all Turks, but he is not to the taste of a military that suspects the AK Party of harbouring a secret Islamist agenda.
Many observers expect Gul, who broke with an Islamist party in 1999, will try to avoid confrontation.
“You shouldn’t expect radical moves with Gul as president. Both his opponents, who are scared he might do so, will be surprised and his supporters hoping for radical moves will be disappointed,” said academic expert Cengiz Candar.
Turkish financial markets were hurt by weaker global markets and rattled by the army statement. The lira showed little reaction to the vote, easing to 1.3285 against the dollar.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Gul’s election could give new impetus to the EU accession process.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he planned to present his new reform-oriented cabinet for approval on Wednesday to Gul.
The secular elite and Turkey’s generals, who have ousted four governments since 1960, are wary of Gul’s Islamist past and alarmed at the prospect of his wife wearing the Islamic headscarf in the Cankaya presidential palace.
The headscarf is for many a potent symbol of the religious influence that soldier-turned-politician Mustafa Kemal Ataturk banished from public life when he founded the modern, Western-style republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
“My mother will not come (to parliament),” Gul’s son, Mehmet Emre, was quoted as saying by the state news agency Anatolian. This suggested Hayrunnisa was trying to avoid controversy.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party plans to boycott Gul’s swearing-in ceremony at 4 p.m. British time. In contrast with previous inaugurations, the military top brass was also expected to be absent.
However, a survey conducted for the newspaper Milliyet showed 72.6 percent of participants regarded it as “normal” for the wife of the president to wear a headscarf, while 19.8 percent said they would be uncomfortable about it.
Turkey, a key member of NATO, has been mired in political turmoil since April when the AK Party first nominated Gul as its candidate. The crisis sparked early parliamentary elections.
Gul’s election marked a sweet victory for the AK Party, which has gradually moved closer to the centre of Turkish politics. It completes its capture of all top state institutions.
In Turkey, the government holds most power but the president can veto laws and official appointments and name judges. The post carries some moral weight, as it was first held by Ataturk.
Both Gul and Erdogan — who have both broken with political Islam — say they are loyal to secularism and their party’s July landslide win gives Gul a strong presidential mandate.
“One of the striking qualities is that he will be affectionate to the public. It’ll open the presidential palace to the people. It was too much of an isolated place in the last seven years,” Candar told Reuters.