Turkey Considers Candidate Gül First Lady in a Headscarf?

Turkey's ruling party on Tuesday nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül as its candidate for president. The move set aside a possible controversy over Prime Minister Erdogan's potential candidacy. But is Gül any better?

By in Istanbul

Not everybody is excited about a possible Abdullah Gül presidency. Here, an anti-Gül protest on Tuesday in Ankara.

Not everybody is excited about a possible Abdullah Gül presidency. Here, an anti-Gül protest on Tuesday in Ankara.

He's hardly an unknown. The man with the broad smile and warm eyes is already the face of Turkey abroad: Abdullah Gül, 56, has served his country for years as foreign minister. Yet despite spending so much time in the international spotlight, flashiness and ostentation are not his style. He prefers instead to base his reputation on discretion, balance, and reliability -- which is precisely why Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), chose him as their candidate for the Turkish presidency.

For months, Turkey had been gripped by the fear that Erdogan would opt to move into the presidency himself. His background with political Islam had made him unpalatable to the Turkish army and to all those who see Erdogan as a danger to the country's Kemalist secularism. Gül has a similar background, but contrary to Erdogan, he has never been a controversial figure. He doesn't incite others and doesn't allow himself to be provoked either. "Gül smiles even when he is furious," a Turkish paper recently wrote about the candidate. But one shouldn't be misled by his docile manner, the daily continued: "Inside, he is very tough."

Erdogan kept the trump card up his sleeve until the very last moment. The deadline to register candidates expires on Wednesday, and because the AKP hesitated in naming its candidate for so long, the presidential election was transformed into a great political riddle that the entire Turkish Republic tried to solve. And Erdogan's party did its part to ensure that the solution wasn't simple -- maybe the candidate would be a woman, the party hinted, or maybe it would be Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül, who at least has decent relations with the army.

Erdogan's alter ego

Until the very end, the media continued to believe in the possibility that Erdogan himself would lay claim to becoming Turkey's next head of state, replacing the outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Turkish journalists, who recently accompanied Erdogan on a trip to Germany, even thought they could read Erdogan's desire for the presidency in his body language. But he managed to fool them all.

Sort of. Gül, after all, is Erdogan's closest political ally and the one he trusts more than any other. The foreign minister is Erdogan's alter ego -- guaranteeing a frictionless future cooperation between the prime minister and the president. Because the Turkish parliament is responsible for choosing the president, the AKP's majority makes Gül eventual election a mere formality.

Gül and Erdogan founded the conservative AKP together in 2001 as a more secular alternative to the Islamic parties the two had belonged to up until that point. Just one year later, the party won the 2002 general elections, and Gül jumped in as prime minister to replace an Erdogan who was briefly banned from national politics -- he had been convicted of inciting religious hatred for reciting an Islamist poem in public. After Erdogan was rehabilitated, Gül stepped aside to allow his mentor to become prime minister.

The move of nominating Gül as the party's presidential candidate is a clever one. By abandoning his presidential ambitions, Erdogan gives his political foes the impression that he has made a concession -- and he can sell the Gül candidacy as a compromise. But it's an easy concession for Erdogan to make -- Gül's political philosophy differs very little from that of the prime minister. Both want to guide Turkey to European Union membership and have introduced major reforms both in the Turkish parliament and in their own party to make that possible.


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