"Turkey is growing and developing very fast... We must protect this atmosphere of stability and tranquility," he said.

 

Under Erdogan, Turkey has experienced solid economic growth after years of weak coalition governments and corruption.

 

His speech was recorded after the army threatened to intervene in the presidential poll process. The army, which sees itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular system, has ousted four governments since 1960.

 

"Turkey is growing and developing very fast ... We must protect this atmosphere of stability and tranquility"

Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish prime minister

Erdogan's ruling AK party has named Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister, as its presidential candidate. Gul has refused to stand aside.

 

Parliament, in which the Justice and Development party (AK) has a large majority, elects the president in predominantly Muslim Turkey.

 

Turkey's financial markets have tumbled. Investors took fright at instability sparked by a court challenge to the presidential election and the anti-government rally of up to one million people.

 

But Erdogan's party, buoyed by the support of the EU it seeks to join, has shown unprecedented defiance of the powerful military.

 

Strict separation

 

Secularists suspect Erdogan and Gul, both former Islamists whose wives wear the Muslim headscarf banned from state institutions, of wanting to alter Turkey's strict separation of state and religion.

 

They reject the charge and point to their pro-Western record in office. Gul has been a leading architect of Turkey's EU membership bid.

 

Court ruling

 

Turkey's constitutional court began on Monday to examine an opposition request to suspend the poll, a decision that would trigger early parliamentary elections. In the view of many analysts, this would help defuse tensions.

 

The court has said it will try to issue its verdict by Wednesday, when parliament is due to hold a second round of voting on Gul's candidacy. Gul is not expected to win the presidency until the third round on May 9.

 

The leader of Turkey's secularist main opposition CHP, Deniz Baykal, has called for an alliance among all the opposition parties and accused the AK party of riding roughshod over people's concerns about secularism.

 

Islamist state?

 

At Sunday's rally in Istanbul many protesters accused the government of planning an Islamist state and criticised it for failing to consult opponents on the choice of president, who carries great symbolic weight and has important veto and appointment powers.

 

Parliament, where Erdogan's AK party has
a majority, elects the president [Reuters]
The AK party, formed out of a banned Islamist party, draws its core support from conservative religious Turks but has won broader backing for pushing liberal economic reforms designed to take the country into the EU. It was elected into power in 2002, months after its creation, on an anti-corruption platform.

 

Since 1960 the Turkish army, Nato's second biggest, has ousted two governments by outright coups and two more by "soft coups", rallying pressure to force leaders to step down. But the generals' formal state powers have been cut back under reforms introduced by the AK party in pursuit of EU membership.