ANKARA (AP) – Turkey’s prime minister issued thinly veiled warnings to the military and secular opposition Wednesday not to interfere in upcoming presidential elections and defended the ruling party’s choice of a presidential candidate who has already caused a political crisis.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party decided this week to nominate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, an observant Muslim, as its candidate for president even though his candidacy previously caused and opposition uproar that forced the government to call early parliamentary elections. Gul is almost certain to win the presidential election by parliament.
The powerful Turkish military and secular parties fear that Erdogan’s party would use control of both parliament and the presidency to chip away at the principles of separation of state and religion such as a ban on Islamic headscarves in government offices and other public places.
Gul’s wife, Hayrunisa, wears the Islamic headscarf and once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear it to a university
Turkey held early elections last month after a crisis over Gul’s presidential candidacy that culminated with the military, perpetrator of past coups, threatening to intervene to safeguard secularism.
“If there is a backsliding in democracy, it would have serious effects on the economy,” Erdogan warned Wednesday. “The will of the people that was reflected in the ballot boxes must be respected.”
Erdogan defended Gul as “the ideal candidate” for president and said he would watch over the “sensitivities of Turkey.”
Earlier Wednesday, Gul tried to ease concerns about his candidacy and pledged to respect the principles of a secular state which are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution.
“No one should have any doubt on this issue,” Gul said, promising to abandon his political affiliations and be a neutral president. “The principles of the constitution will be my guide.”
However, Gul defended his wife’s right to wear a headscarf as a personal preference, saying the rights of individuals were also guaranteed under the constitution.
Turkey’s leading secular party, the Republican People’s Party, said Tuesday it would boycott the presidential vote because Gul’s Islamic past threatens the secular regime. They boycott cannot stop Gul’s election, but it shows the distress felt by the secular establishment about his candidacy.
Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of the military, has said: “We hope that someone who is loyal to the principles of the republic – not just in words but in essence – is elected president.”
Both Gul and Erdogan have rejected the Islamic fundamentalist label, citing those reforms. But they have also sought to improve ties with the Islamic world.
Erdogan, who resigned after his party swept to victory in polls last month, said he would submit a new and expanded Cabinet for approval to the current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Thursday. Sezer, a staunch secularist, has in the past objected to several names proposed by Erdogan.
Despite winning a majority of seats in the July elections Erdogan’s party failed to secure the two-thirds it would need to approve a presidential candidate in the first two rounds of parliamentary voting, which start Monday.
But Gul is almost certain to be elected by the simple majority required in the third round on Aug. 28.