Gül Elected President in Ankara: A Test of Turkey's Maturity
After months of acrimony and debate, Abdullah Gül was elected the new president of Turkey. Many suspect him of being a closet adherent of political Islam. Just how Turkey reacts to his election will say a lot about the country's maturity.
It was an image full of symbolism. On the night in July when his party won the general elections, Prime Minister Tecep Tayyip Erdogan stepped in front of the cameras side-by-side with his Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül and their two wives, both wearing headscarves. The message was clear: Here are the two most powerful couples in Turkey. They are conservative and they are religious -- and their comfort with showing it amounts to nothing less than a silent revolution in secular Turkey.
The strictly secular Kemalists had tried to prevent Gül from rising to the top of the political hierarchy. But now he has managed to defeat them: Erdogan's trusted companion on Tuesday was finally elected the new president of Turkey, despite protests, boycotts and a genuine political crisis. Now Erdogan's party, the conservative Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) controls all of the republic's centers of power: the government, the parliament and the presidency. The president in Turkey is responsible for selecting the military's chief of staff, the country's highest justices and even university directors. The secular class is furious -- little now stands in the way of a complete replacement of the country's elite.
Gül's presidency amounts to the breaking of a Turkish taboo. He is the first state leader who made his career in a conservative Islamic party. Former President Turgut Özal was religious too; he even made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But he was never an adherent of political Islam. Gül, on the other hand, was a member of Necmettin Erbakan's National Salvation Party before it was banned because of its religious bent. He was also a minister and the government spokesman in Erbakan's government, which was quickly swept out of power by a military coup. His enemies also like to remind people that Gül, who holds a Ph.D. in economics, worked for the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) in Saudi Arabia for seven years. It was only in 2001, at age 50, that Gül followed a new path and founded the AKP along with Erdogan. The AKP renounced all connections with political Islam and is now considered a model for the reconciliation of Islam with Western democracy.
Jovial Manner and Constant Smile
Gül's path to the presidency -- beset by lost votes, demonstrations and threats from the country's military -- was hardly a smooth one, and his refusal to give up says much about his resilience. He has stamina. He is ambitious. And he wants power. He stubbornly asserted himself even against Erdogan, who was temporarily considering an alternative candidate without a veiled wife in order to appease the country's secular forces. That, though, would have made Erdogan look weak in the face of the military, which had positioned itself as staunchly anti-Gül.
Along with Erdogan, Gül has brought Turkey closer to Europe than any previous government, and is thus highly respected and popular in Brussels. Even left-wing politicians consider him a "great reformer." German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appreciates the Turkish politician as an "absolutely reliable partner." Indeed, Gül's European colleagues were praising him as the right choice for the Turkish presidency prior to his election even as his enemies back home, many of whom accuse him of pursuing a secret Islamic agenda, were doing all they could to make his life difficult.
It seems clear, though, that Abdullah Gül will give the office of the president a new weight in foreign policy. He once defined one of his goals as that of "proving to the skeptical West that a Muslim country can be ruled democratically and transparently." A politician like Gül -- worldly and viewed with sympathy by many, a man who went to university in Britain and speaks fluent English -- can only benefit Turkey's image, especially during the ongoing clash over the country's potential EU membership. The stance that Gül's predecessor Sezer displayed towards the West varied from skeptical to reserved -- he was often tight-lipped when receiving European diplomats. Under his rule, the heavily guarded presidential palace in Ankara became a kind of fortress. Gül wants to now open that fortress to the people.
A Test Between the Religious and Secular
Still, the situation remains tetchy, even as a growing number of pundits now seem to think that Turkey will eventually get used to Gül. His enemies have so far shown no sign that they intend to accept his election. The social democratic opposition party CHP, for example, has already announced it plans to boycott receptions held by President Gül.
The Turkish military on Tuesday has so far said little about Gül's election. But on Monday, the generals once again threatened that they would defend Turkish secularism if it was threatened. How the military takes to the new president will become apparent as early as Victory Day on Thursday -- which celebrates the final victory in Turkey's 1922 war of independence.
The generals will, no doubt, keep a close eye on the president. The main issue, of course, is the headscarf -- the ulimate symbol in the test of strength between Turkey's secular and religious forces. Wearing the headscarf is strictly forbidden in schools, universities and public offices. How demonstratively will Gül present his veiled wife to the world? Will he allow her to attend state receptions? His predecessor Sezer -- a lawyer who turned into a Kemalist apparatchik after initially being seen as Turkey's great political hope -- tolerated no women in headscarves at his receptions, so that even Gül and Prime Minister Erdogan always showed up at state dinners without their wives. Pious Turkish women found this humiliating, and many especially traditional-minded Turks also felt badly represented by Sezer.
This large section of Turkish society is now hoping Gül will end such discrimination. But he has to act carefully, otherwise his openness towards Islam will be interpreted as a challenge. His wife Hayrünnissa will play an important role too. She even took her case to the European Court of Human Rights when she was not allowed to attend university wearing a headscarf. She dropped the case when her husband moved into government.
A Political Realist
Despite the difficulties associated with his election, Gül has what it takes to make his presideny a success and become the president of all Turks. Indeed, he is immensely popular, with polls suggesting that he would have been elected if the president were chosen by the general public instead of the parliament. As a diplomat, he has proven intelligent and capable of withstanding crisis. His religiosity was never a problem on the European stage. He is a political realist, capable of compromise. He realized even before Erdogan did that the AKP's plan to make adultery punishable by law could not be implemented in Europe -- and he simply dropped the project during the brief period when he led the government without Erdogan.
Many Turks see in him the promise of a mediator who can settle the conflict between the country's secular and religious forces. And Gül says that is just what he wants to do. But he will only succeed if he is also willing to approach his opponents and demonstrate to them that the AKP takes its promises of tolerance seriously. Among the battle cries of the Kemalists, he must pay attention to the justified concerns of those who fear Turkey is transforming into a society with ever more reglemented customs, a society that curbs Western liberties. Gül must remain aware of those who are concerned about polls revealing that a majority of the AKP's voters considers it sinful for someone to lie on the beach wearing a bikini; those who believe a headscarved first lady could convey to the West a false image of Turkey. Left-wing and liberal politicians are waiting for unambiguous statements on such issues as freedom of opinion (a freedom that is still significantly restricted in Turkey) or the rights of religious minorities. As president, Gül could send a clear message by formulating his own positions with regard to the basic values of democracy.
Gül's presidency is a test of maturity -- for Gül, the AKP and Turkish democracy.
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