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Secular Tensions in Turkey

DW staff / AFP / dpa (nda)April 28, 2007

The European Union warned the Turkish army on Saturday not to interfere in the country's democratic process amid a dispute over the ruling party's Islamist-rooted candidate to be Turkey's next president.

The Turkish army sees itself as the guardian of the country's secular systemImage: AP

"It is important that the military leaves the remit of democracy to the democratically elected government," EU Enlargement Commissioner, Ollie Rehn, said in a statement.

His comments follows an army warning issued on Friday that the military would defend Turkey's secularist system after parliament failed to approve the ruling party's candidate for president.

"This is a test case if the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularism and the democratic arrangement of civil-military relations," Rehn said.

In Friday's first round of voting, the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate, Abdullah Gul, narrowly failed to win.

Gul, who is also foreign minister, secured 357 votes -- just 10 short of the 367, or two thirds of all deputies needed to win in the first round.

The main secular opposition party boycotted the vote and said it would challenge the election in court.

Army blames AKP for rising anti-secularism

Türkei Militär in Ankara Atatürk Mausoleum
The Turkish army has led three coups since 1960Image: AP

In its statement released late Friday, the military accused the AKP, the offshoot of a now-banned Islamist movement, of failing to prevent rising anti-secular activity in the country.

The Turkish army, responsible for three past coups, warned that it is determined to defend the country's secular system. "The problem that recently came to the forefront of the presidential election process has focused on the issue of questioning secularism. The Turkish armed forces are observing this situation with concern," the army said.

"The Turkish armed forces... will openly and clearly display their position and attitude when necessary. No one should doubt this," it warned.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has yet to respond to the army statement.

The AKP's nomination of Gul has fanned unease in an increasingly polarised society where many fear the secular order is under threat from a growing Islamist influence.

Many suspect AKP of an Islamist agenda

Türkei Präsident Kandidat Außenminister Abdullah Gül und Ministerpräsident Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Gul, left, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoganImage: AP

Many are unconvinced by the AKP's arguments that it has disawoved its Islamist past and fear the government will have a free hand to implement a suspected Islamist agenda that will erode the separation of state and religion if Gul is elected.

The Turkish armed forces, which see themselves as the guardians of the secular system, seized power in 1960, 1971 and 1980 and forced the resignation in 1997 of the country's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan.

The main opposition Republican People's Party, which strongly opposes the idea of a former Islamist becoming president, on Friday evening petitioned the Constitutional Court to cancel the first round of voting, citing violation of a quorum rule.

If the court annuls the vote, general elections -- originally scheduled for November 4 -- must be called within 90 days. If the Constitutional Court does not cancel the vote, parliament will hold a second round on Wednesday, probably with a similar result, but Gul is virtually certain to be elected in the third round on May 9, when an absolute majority of 276 will suffice.

Turkish media takes army threat seriously

Türkei Militär Soldat auf Zypern
The media says fast poiltical action will negate the army's fearsImage: AP

The Turkish press on Saturday urged the government to call early elections to prevent it from plunging into a deep crisis.

In a front-page editorial, the popular daily Vatan urged all political parties to take the army statement seriously. "The quickest way to save Turkey and its future is to convene parliament at once, hold elections as speedily as possible and prove to the world that Turkey is mature enough to resolve its problems democratically," it said.

Many commentators accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP of raising tensions and not seeking a consensus with the opposition on the choice for the presidency, which is a non-partisan office, but relying on his comfortable parliamentary majority to have his way.

Erdogan's detractors accuse him of abusing his nearly two-thirds parliamentary majority garnered with only one third of the vote in the 2002 vote -- thanks to Turkey's much-criticized electoral system -- to put an Islamist in the presidency seen as the last bastion of secularism in Turkey.

Dozens of non-governmental organizations have called for a rally in Istanbul Sunday to show their support for the secular system, similar to one in Ankara two weeks ago which drew up up to 1.5 million people, acording to some estimates.

The AKP was born out of Erbakan's party, banned for anti-secular activities the year after it was ousted from power, but argues that it has since evolved and is committed to the secular system.

Secularists cite its unsuccessful attempts to criminalise adultery, restrict alcohol sales and lift a ban islamic headsarves in government offices and universities as evidence that the party has not changed.