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Turkey's Gul urges new constitution

ANKARA -- Turkey's planned new constitution should boost democracy, human rights and secularism in the European Union applicant nation, President Abdullah Gul told parliament on Monday.

The ruling centre-right AK Party has made reform of Turkey's military-era constitution its top priority after winning re-election in July polls, though critics accuse it of preparing the draft text in secrecy and without proper consultation.

"The new constitution must confirm our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms," Gul told the opening session of parliament after its summer recess.

"I am sure a perfect constitution will be achieved through the contributions of parliament, political parties and all sections of society," said Gul, stressing the need for consensus and inclusiveness in drawing up the text.

Turkish secularists fear the AK Party, which has Islamist roots, is using constitutional reform as a cover to weaken restrictions on religious symbols such as the headscarf and thus undermine the secular republic.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan denies any Islamist agenda, though he has made clear he would like to abolish the headscarf ban in universities in the name of freedom of expression.

Both Erdogan's and Gul's wives wear the Muslim headscarf.

The new parliament is due to examine draft proposals for a new constitution in the coming months. Erdogan has said Turkish voters will have the final say on the text in a referendum.

Earlier on Monday, the head of the powerful and staunchly secular armed forces made clear the military is closely monitoring the constitutional debates and will brook no dilution of secularism or of the strong Turkish nation state.

General Yasar Buyukanit said the military General Staff would express its view on the constitutional changes when the final draft is finally published.

In a country that has seen four military coups in the past half century, the army's views on politics still matter, despite EU-inspired reforms aimed at curbing the generals' influence.

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