ANKARA (AFP)–Nearly nine decades after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the secular republic of Turkey, a conservative Muslim has been elected president.
In April, millions of people across Turkey took to the streets to protest the possibility that the country’s next president could hail from the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development (AK) party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
"We are against the AK party!" they chanted. "We are Ataturk’s children! That’s why we’re here — all the people!"
"All the signs are showing that, during the presidency of Mr. Gul, Turkey will become a moderate Islamic state, step-by-step," one analyst said.Nonetheless, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was elected today in a third round of voting by parliament to become Turkey’s first conservative Muslim president. That has "Ataturk’s children," including the military, concerned that, with Gul as president, the AK party will have a free hand to push through what they see as a secret agenda to undermine secularism.
"I want to believe [Gul], but I cannot believe [him]," said Nagme Bas, a 68-year-old Istanbul resident. "Two faces. Two years [ago], he doesn’t like Ataturk. Two years [later], so-so. Now, he likes Ataturk. Next year, I’m not sure he will like [Ataturk] or not. I cannot believe [him]. I don’t like this government. I think they are working under the table."
Many Turkish secularists decry what they see as the AK party’s insincere stance on secularism and its champion, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey.
The protests sparked in April by Gul’s first bid to become president triggered a political crisis and a stern warning by the staunchly secular military, which has unseated four elected governmen’s in the last half century.
But in early elections on July 22 called to end the crisis, Erdogan’s pro-business AK party emerged even stronger, taking nearly half the votes. That new strength in parliament is set to elevate Gul to the presidency.
Now, the question is whether the secular foundations of Ataturk’s republic can survive with a conservative Muslim president whose wife wears a head scarf — a taboo in Turkey.
"All these issues were brought to the fore in the demonstrations," says Turkish political analyst Bulent Aliriza. "And those who were marching in the streets, and some of the political parties were saying that the country is becoming more fundamentalist. And what happened? AK ended up with more than half the votes. So what I think is happening is that the country is becoming more religious, or at the very least, the visible expression of religious devotion is higher than what it was. The question is whether this is the beginning of the end of the Turkish secular system. And I think, frankly, it isn’t."
Yet there are signs of confrontation. On the eve of Gul’s expected election, Turkish military chief General Yasar Buyukanit warned that the country’s secularism and unity are under attack by "centers of evil."
Secularists demonstrating against Gul’s nomination in April said, "Our nation has been watching the behavior of centers of evil who systematically try to corrode the secular nature" of the country.
Aliriza says it will be up to AK to decide how far to push its desire for conservative changes in the face of pressure from secularists, including the military establishment:
"Is there going to be a move by AK to undermine the secular system, as its detractors stressed?" he says. "Without [outgoing President Ahmet Necdet] Sezer being there, and with Gul being at the presidential palace, it will be AK which restrains itself, rather than the presidency. So we’re going to have to see."
There are signs that the AK party will seek to use its strength in parliament to push through changes to Turkey’s secular traditions.
The party said it would have ready by the end of September a new constitution that it says would increase personal freedoms. Media reports say the new constitution is expected to reduce the powers of the president, subject military rulings to civilian review, and end a ban on Islamic head scarves in universities.
The AK party has vowed it is committed to Turkey’s secular roots, but such proposals are unlikely to win any converts among Turkish liberals.
Mustafa Ozyurek is deputy chairman of the fiercely secular Republican People’s Party, which has vowed to boycott any official events that Gul will attend as president.
"If Mr. Gul shows a very different personality when he is elected, as he is promising now, then we can revise our attitude," Ozyurek says. "However, all the signs are showing that, during the presidency of Mr. Gul, Turkey will become a moderate Islamic state, step-by-step."
Ordinary secularists, particularly women, worry they will slowly lose cherished freedoms, such as wearing whatever clothing they want or drinking alcoholic beverages without undo restrictions.
Not everyone is overly concerned, however.
Under Erdogan’s AK party, Turkey has taken unprecedented steps toward EU membership. The European Union, in turn, has encouraged Erdogen’s government to push through reforms that would curtail the role of the Turkish military in civilian life.
"If [Gul] keeps these promises, and if he keeps the promises especially on the secular democratic nature of the Turkish republic, then I believe that there should be no tension," says Murat Yetkin, a columnist for the respected political newspaper "Radikal."And I believe the question marks now pending on the presidency of Abdullah Gul will fade out. Otherwise, there might be some tensions, political tensions in society and in politics."
Parliament failed to elect Gul in the first two votes, where a two-thirds majority is needed for victory. For today’s third round, he only needed a simple majority.
While serving a mostly ceremonial role, the Turkish president can veto laws and the appointmen’s of officials and appoint judges. The presidency also carries symbolic weight, because the post was first held by Ataturk himself.