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Turkey's Gul defends wife's headscarf

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s presidential candidate Abdullah Gul said on Wednesday he anticipated no problems with the powerful military over his wife’s Muslim headscarf and insisted the constitution guaranteed her freedom to wear it.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R) greets his supporters as he is flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan (R), Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul (2nd L) and Gul's wife Hayrunisa Gul (L) from party headquarters in Ankara July 22, 2007. Turkey's presidential candidate Abdullah Gul said on Wednesday he anticipated no problems with the powerful military over his wife's Muslim headscarf and insisted the constitution guaranteed her freedom to wear it. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Turkey’s secular elite, including the generals, opposes Foreign Minister Gul’s bid for the top job because of his Islamist past and the fact his wife Hayrunisa covers her head.

The headscarf, seen by secularists as a threat to the separation of state and religion, is banned from public offices and schools, though more than half of Turkish women wear it.

Asked whether the army might raise objections over the headscarf, Gul told reporters: “Turkey is a country governed by laws... The constitution guarantees basic human rights, including the right to dress as one pleases.”

Gul also vowed to act as an impartial head of state.

“The president must have equal distance from everybody and observe the principle of impartiality,” said Gul after seeking support for his bid from business leaders and labour unions.

Parliament will hold a series of votes for the presidency starting next Monday. Gul is expected to win in the third round on August 28 when he needs a simple majority in the 550-member parliament, where his ruling AK Party has 341 seats.

In his first public comments on Gul’s candidacy, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he believed the presidential election would pass smoothly in a spirit of “democratic maturity”, shrugging off fears of clashes with the secularists.

Erdogan also expressed full support for Gul, whom he called “an ideal candidate”, quashing speculation in some Turkish newspapers that he had not wanted his loyal deputy to run.

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Gul is a smooth diplomat who secured the launch of Turkey’s European Union entry talks. He denies any Islamist agenda.

But his candidacy poses a direct challenge to the military, which helped derail his first bid to become head of state in April with a statement warning of creeping Islamisation in Turkey and signalling its opposition to Gul.

That move forced Erdogan to call early parliamentary elections which his AK Party decisively won last month.

Turkish financial markets weakened on Wednesday on global factors and on uncertainty over the presidency. The lira currency fell to its weakest level in two months against the dollar and stocks also fell sharply.

The secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has snubbed Gul’s request for talks and says it will boycott state receptions if he is elected.

But other opposition parties have taken a more constructive line and have said they will attend the voting sessions, ensuring the AK Party has a quorum for the election to be valid.

The army has not commented on Gul’s decision to run again.

But analysts say it will watch Gul’s actions very closely and note it has always reserved the right to intervene in the political arena if secularism is deemed to be in danger.

Just 10 years ago, the military, with strong public backing, ousted a government in which Gul served because it was seen as too Islamist. But things are very different now.

Erdogan’s government is popular, having won 47 percent of the vote in July’s elections, and the economy is strong.

Erdogan confirmed he would present his new cabinet list on Thursday to outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist. If Sezer vetos any names, Erdogan has signalled he will wait for the new president to approve the list.