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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Analysis: Turkey's tense election
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Ankara

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and wife Hayunisa
The presidential candidate's wife wears the Islamic headscarf
Turkey's governing AK party has nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its candidate in the upcoming presidential election.

The move ends weeks of heated debate over whether Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would run.

Mr Erdogan was once a member of a pro-Islamic party, and staunch secularists feared he would challenge the strict separation in Turkey between religion and politics.

The nomination of Mr Gul is a compromise of sorts. It follows a street protest of almost 400,000 people in the capital ten days ago, called to pressure Mr Erdogan not to stand.

Turkey's most senior general had also issued a veiled warning to the prime minister, with a reminder that the next president must be loyal to the secular constitution "at his core, not just in his words".

Contrasting styles

"This is a smart political move. It seems the prime minister decided that his own candidacy would create serious problems, and chose to put forward his next best option instead," says newspaper columnist Haluk Sahin. "This way he can appear to act like a statesman, but the presidency will still go to one of his own."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Mr Erdogan has denied pushing a pro-Islam agenda
Mr Gul is a soft-spoken politician, whose style is far less confrontational than Mr Erdogan's.

As foreign minister Mr Gul has overseen Turkey's accession talks with the EU and analysts believe he is better trusted by the powerful military. His candidacy should go some way to reducing the tension that has been growing here in recent weeks.

The announcement was met with wild applause by party members in parliament.

But Mr Gul and Mr Erdogan share an identical political background.

Headscarf controversy

Both began their political careers in the pro-Islamic Welfare party, which has since been banned. Both men's wives wear the Islamic headscarf, which is a deeply divisive symbol in Turkey.

If Mr Gul is elected by parliament as expected, his wife would be the first ever First Lady in Turkey to cover her head.

The president must be loyal to the main principles of the republic as stated in the constitution, he must be loyal to secular principles
Abdullah Gul

Many female AK party voters also cover their heads and want to see the tight restrictions on where they can wear the headscarf relaxed.

"There may be an initial positive reaction to this choice, but it won't last," believes Professor Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University, speaking of Turkey's secular establishment. "Gul will be seen as much less controversial, but not necessarily less dangerous than Erdogan in the presidency."

"If anything, he appears far closer to his Islamic roots than the prime minister."

The main opposition CHP party has already declared it will boycott the election process, which begins in parliament on Friday, and appeal to the constitutional court if fewer than two-thirds of deputies show up to vote.

The AK party does not control that many seats, but disputes any such interpretation of the law. The opposition was not consulted on the choice of candidate.

Negative reaction

It is highly unlikely the prospect of a President Gul will spark further street protests, but public reaction to the announcement in Ankara was decidedly cool.

"I'm not happy with this candidate," Iffet says. "He does not represent democracy, or Turkey. His wife wears the veil, which I don't appreciate, and I don't believe he intends to follow Ataturk's ideals."

It was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who founded Turkey as a strictly secular state.

"Personally I don't want anyone from this party to be president," another man adds. "We should have had a neutral outsider who was accepted by all."

The Turkish president has a veto on all laws and appoints some key figures within the establishment. Secularists fear when the AK party controls that post as well as parliament, it will find it far easier to push what they insist is its "Islamic agenda".

"So now the real battle will start," argues Haluk Sahin, referring to the general election due later this year.

"If the opposition can campaign and weaken the AK party ahead of that vote - and the next government is not only AKP but a coalition, then President Gul would be reduced to a mere figurehead."




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