Turkey secularism row escalates

Government says military's concern over presidential poll unacceptable in democracy.

    Secularist university students protest against the
    AKP party in Ankara on Saturday [Reuters]

    'Painful price'
    In his first reaction, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said the nation would oppose actions that would hurt political stability.
    Speaking to the Turkish Red Crescent in Ankara on Saturday, he said: "This nation has paid a heavy, painful price when the base of  stability and confidence has been lost. But it no longer allows, nor  will it allow, opportunists who are waiting and paving the way for a  disaster."

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    The military website statement said: "It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism.
    "When necessary, they will display their attitudes and actions very clearly. No one should doubt that."
    Erdogan did not refer directly to the army or its communique.
    Immediately afterwards, he convened a meeting with Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) presidential hopeful, and some  cabinet ministers, CNN-Turk news channel reported.
    On Friday, Gul failed to win enough votes in a first round of voting in parliament that has been marked by tensions between the government and the defenders of Turkey's secular ideals.
    'Not acceptable'
    On Saturday, Cemil Cicek, the justice minister and government spokesman, said any military warning to the government was "not acceptable in a democratic order".


    He said: "It is unthinkable for an institution like the military, which is attached to the prime minister, to make any statement against the government on any issue.

    Opposition parties boycotted Friday's vote to select a new president [Reuters]

    "According to our constitution, the military chief of staff is responsible to the prime minister."
    Opposition members have appealed against Friday's presidential election in the constitutional court on the grounds that there were not enough legislators present for a quorum and have called for early elections as the only way out of the impasse.
    Cicek said the military statement, which was issued after the opposition's appeal, appeared to be an attempt to influence the court.
    In an apparent attempt to reduce tensions, he added that Erdogan had a "useful and fruitful" telephone conversation with General Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of military staff, but declined to give details.
    The military, which has declared itself the guardians of Turkey's secular traditions, remains one of the country's most trusted institutions.
    EU warning
    The European Union is pressuring Turkey to curb the influence of the military as part of its membership bid and, on Saturday, said the election of a new president was a "test case" for the Turkish military's respect for democracy.

    "This is a clear test case whether the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularisation and democratic values," said Olli Rehn, the EU expansion affairs commissioner.

    At a speech in Ankara on Saturday, Erdogan
    obliquely told the military to lay off [Reuters]

    The president can veto legislation, and the prospect of electing a leading member of the Islamic-oriented government has unnerved Turkey's secular establishment.
    Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the current president who steps down on May 16, vigorously used his powers as a check on the government, vetoing a record number of legislative bills and appointments of officials.
    Hundreds of thousands of people recently demonstrated for secular ideals in the capital, Ankara, and another large rally was planned in Istanbul on Sunday.
    Opposition parties have accused the government of raising tensions by insisting on a candidate with an Islamist past and resisting calls for a president acceptable to all.

    Simple majority
    If the constitutional court rules in favour of the ruling party, Gul is likely to win in the third round when only a simple majority is required.
    He has promised to uphold the country's secular traditions amid concerns that his victory will strengthen the role of Islam in politics.
    The ruling party has supported religious schools and tried to lift the ban on Muslim headscarves in public offices.

    Gul won AKP legislators' backing in the election
    on Friday but failed to win enough votes [AFP]

    Secularists are also uncomfortable with the idea of Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, being in the presidential palace because she wears the traditional Muslim head scarf.
    Both Gul and Erdogan, however, reject the Islamist label.
    The Turkish military has staged several coups in past decades, and in 1997 led a campaign that pressured an Islamic party - of which Erdogan and Gul were both members - out of government.
    At the time, the military issued warnings to the government to curb religious initiatives, while secularists took to the streets in protest against the government's policies.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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