Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, a practising Muslim and former Islamist, was on Tuesday sworn in as the 11th President of the staunchly secular republic in a move that will be seen as a defining moment for the country.
Gul’s ascent to the post came after 339 MPs — two short of the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development (AK) party’s presence in the 550-seat Parliament — voted for the British-educated economist in the third round of a presidential election that required a simple majority to clinch the job.
The appointment of the 56-year-old, who played a major part in the rise of political Islam during the 1990s, marked a victory for the governing Muslim democrats over the military and bureaucratic elite that has controlled the country since its modern foundation 84 years ago.
For the first time, prayer mats will enter the presidential palace and, even more scandalously for secularists, so will a headscarf-wearing First Lady in the form of Hayrunisa Gul, the new president’s equally pious wife.
Within minutes of being sworn in, Gul vowed to remain neutral in his new role. ”Secularism — one of the main principles of our republic — is a precondition for social peace as much as it is a liberating model for different lifestyles,” he said. ”As long as I am in office, I will embrace all our citizens without bias. I will preserve my impartiality with the greatest of care.”
Gul, who has won plaudits for his handling of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, said it is vital that the predominantly Muslim state push ahead with modernising reforms — a sign that, as promised, he will also be a more active president, promoting Turkey’s role in the world.
Gul is also expected to leave the AK party, which he helped found, to impress his declared aim of impartiality on sceptics. Three months ago, Turkey was thrown into political crisis after Gul was nominated for the job by his ally, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The prospect of the affable anglophile being elected to the position — which carries immense veto powers — prompted an outpouring of vitriol, exposing the hatred between secularists and more religious-minded Turks, and pushing millions of protesters on to the streets after the army also threatened to intervene.
To end the crisis, the AK party called early elections, a gambit that paid off when it was returned to power with a resounding 47% of the vote last month.
The election has been seen as a test case of the army’s respect for democratic processes in the country. But highlighting the polarisation that Gul’s candidacy has caused — and fears that the neo-Islamists are bent on dismantling Turkey’s secular foundations — the head of the armed forces, General Yasar Buyukanit, again warned of the threat to secularism by ”centres of evil” on the eve of the ballot.
The warning was interpreted as proof that Turkey’s generals will not stand by if the president chips away at the country’s divide between the state and religion.
His first challenge will come on Thursday when, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he will be the guest of honour at the military-led Victory Day celebrations marking Turkey’s War of Independence against the Greeks and other allies. The big question is whether Gul will risk the generals’ wrath by taking his veiled wife with him. — Guardian Unlimited Ã‚