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Turkish reformist Gul named presidential candidate

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s ruling AK Party picked reformist Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as its presidential candidate on Tuesday, a decision that may ease tension with the army and boost the Islamist-rooted party’s electoral chances.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul gestures during a news conference at the Turkish parliament in Ankara April 24, 2007. Turkey's ruling AK Party picked Gul as its presidential candidate on Tuesday in a move which could ease tension with the army and boost the Islamist-rooted party's electoral chances. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Gul’s candidacy is the first time in modern Turkey’s history the post, traditionally held by the secular elite, is poised to go to a former Islamist. It will complete the AK Party’s capture of all key posts in Turkey’s political hierarchy.

But Gul is widely seen as more moderate than Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who had come under intense pressure from the secular elite, which includes army generals and judges, not to run for president himself because of fears he would undermine the separation of state and religion.

By standing aside, Erdogan, Turkey’s most popular politician, can focus on preparing and campaigning for parliamentary elections that must be held by November.

Despite Erdogan’s decision not to stand, the military still issued a veiled warning to the ruling party.

“The next president should be tied to the Turkish republic’s main principles which were defined in the constitution -- secularism, social state and democracy,” the deputy chief of the armed forces, General Ergun Saygun, told reporters.

The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), fiercely secularist, said it would boycott the vote in parliament because of the AK Party’s lack of consultation.

This should not stop him being elected in the first round of voting on April 27, because the AK Party has a big majority.

But it does raise the prospect of political turmoil that could upset financial markets, particularly if the CHP asks the Constitutional Court to annul the result as it threatened to do.

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Turkish financial markets recovered some lost ground after the news on Gul. The lira currency gained against the dollar and Istanbul’s main share exchange index also trimmed losses.

Gul is a respected diplomat who has overseen the launch of European Union accession talks as foreign minister and was briefly prime minister when the party came to power in 2002.

Both he and Erdogan deny an Islamist agenda. Gul pledged that if elected he would act in line with the country’s basic secular principles -- established by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The presidential campaign has again brought to the surface the great divide among Turks, who are predominantly Muslim over the role of religion amid fast economic and social change.

Gul’s wife wears the Islamic headscarf, seen by secularists as a provocative symbol of religion.

To have him as commander-in-chief could irritate a military establishment that sees itself as the ultimate guardian of the state and has removed four governments in 50 years. Gul spent his honeymoon in a military jail during a 1980 coup.

“Despite the fact that his wife wears the headscarf, Gul, a gently spoken moderate politician, is more trusted by the military and the secularist establishment than other AK Party leaders,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey analyst at the Eurasia political risk consultancy.

Senior members of the AK Party had feared the party would lose votes in the national election if Erdogan became president and quit party politics. If the AK Party loses votes there is a strong chance it will have to form a coalition government with nationalist parties, jeopardizing reforms.

But the government was shaken this month when more than 350,000 people rallied in Ankara against a possible Erdogan presidency. It was one of the largest protests in years.

In Turkey, the government holds most power but the president can veto laws, veto appointments of officials and appoint judges, and carries great moral weight.

Additional reporting by Gareth Jones and Selcuk Gokoluk