In a debate that highlights significant political change in the European Union candidate country, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek insisted on Monday it was for parliament alone to decide if the higher education bill should pass – and not the military.
   
The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which is deeply distrusted by the military establishment because of its Islamist roots, has a large parliamentary majority.
   
The fiercely secularist military fears the government's reform plan to ease restrictions on students entering university from religious vocational schools will boost the influence of Islam in education.
   
The government is now expected to submit the bill to a vote later this week, though President Ahmet Necdet Sezer could veto it.
   
EU credentials?

In comments apparently designed to prove to the EU the army no longer calls the shots, Cicek said: "Turkey is a democratic country with democratic institutions. Democracy is not something that changes with the seasons, the Turkish nation prefers democracy as a lifestyle." 
   

The Turkish military staunchly
guards a secular constitution

"We have a legislature, an executive and a judiciary in our constitution. We sent the draft to parliament and it is for parliament to decide on this matter," said Cicek.
   
Last Thursday, the General Staff issued its most critical statement of the AKP government since it swept to power in a November 2002 general election.

The statement said the educational reform plans threatened Turkey's secular order.
   
Military pressure ousted a government as recently as 1997 over its perceived tilt away from secularism, but the generals are expected to tread more cautiously now as EU leaders prepare to decide in December whether to open entry talks with Turkey.