ANKARA, Turkey - A moderate politician from a party with Muslim roots was named prime minister yesterday, and he proclaimed that his administration would show the world that Islam and democracy could work together.
Abdullah Gul, a former economics professor and son of a machinist, became a leading candidate for prime minister after the overwhelming election victory of the Justice and Development Party, which swept aside much of Turkey's governing class in elections early this month. With his party firmly in control, Gul seemed certain to be affirmed in the post when the new Parliament gathers this week.
The victory of Gul and his party was an important moment in this country of about 67 million people, which has long struggled with its identity as a largely Islamic nation oriented toward the West. The victory challenges the foundations of the Turkish republic, which was established in 1923 as a secular state. Turkey's sole previous experience with an Islamic-minded government ended in 1997 when the military forced it from power.
Appearing at the president's office, Gul expressed confidence that Turkey's democracy and its Western leanings could thrive under an Islamic leadership. He declared that one of his top priorities would be to win Turkey's admission into the European Union, and he carefully refrained from spelling out any sort of Islamic agenda.
"We want to prove that a Muslim identity can be democratic, transparent and compatible with the modern world," Gul said in an interview. "We will prove this. Turkey will be an example for the world."
Gul, 52, emerged as an unusual choice for prime minister. Ordinarily, the post would have gone to the party's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also Turkey's most popular politician. But Turkish law prohibits Erdogan from holding elected office because of a conviction four years ago for reading aloud a poem that was regarded as inciting religious hatred. Many Turks believed that conviction was politically motivated, and Gul may try to amend the constitution to allow Erdogan to replace him.
Gul, who is fluent in English, affirmed Turkey's friendship with the United States and its membership in NATO. But he is likely to come under political pressure should the United States attack Iraq. Turkey's economy sustained huge losses in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and the country was swamped by 500,000 Kurdish refugees.
Turkey has been battling a Kurdish-led insurgency for years, and Turkish leaders fear that an attack on Iraq might inspire Kurds on both sides to seek their own state.
Though public opinion here is running against an invasion of Iraq, Gul hinted that he would support the Americans if war came. "As far as Iraq is concerned, of course the first thing is to avoid war," Gul said. "But at the same time we don't want to see weapons of mass destruction in a neighboring country."
Gul and Erdogan were previously members of the Welfare Party, which espoused an Islamic agenda and formed a coalition government in the mid-1990s. After a year in office, that government was forced from power by the Turkish military.
Political analysts say that both Gul and Erdogan learned in 1997 that they cannot push an Islamic agenda too far. They rode to power on a promise to rid the government of corruption and revive the economy, and political observers believe that for now, that will give them more than enough to do.