Inside Turkey: Secular Vs. Religious forces

Gul defiant as secular Turks rally
CNN - April 29, 2007

Story Highlights
• Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul vows to continue campaign for presidency
• At least 300,000 secular Turks gather in anti-government protests in Istanbul
• Friday's statement by military chiefs condemned by government, EU, U.S.
• Gul's candidacy has raised fears about threat to Turkey's secular political order

ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has vowed to continue in his bid to become the country's next president despite opposition from lawmakers, business leaders and military chiefs and a massive public demonstration in Istanbul on Sunday.

Gul's nomination, supported by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has raised concerns among Turkey's secular establishment over growing Islamist influence within government.

In a parliamentary vote on Friday, Gul fell short of the two-thirds majority necessary to be elected after opposition lawmakers boycotted the process and called on Turkey's constitional court to render it void.

On Friday evening military chiefs said in a statement they could intervene if the election process threatened to undermine Turkish secularism.

But Gul told reporters on Sunday: "It is out of the question to withdraw my candidacy. The Constitutional Court will make the right decision."

Influential business leaders expressed their dissatisfaction with the government on Sunday in a statement which called for early elections to "protect secularism and democracy," The Associated Press reported.

The statement by business group TUSIAD said: "The indivisible integrity of secularism and democracy lays the foundations of the Turkish republic, a sacrifice of one for the other is unthinkable. Turkey can healthily emerge from this process by lowering tensions and renewing the will of the nation."

On Sunday at least 300,000 demonstrators gathered in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, to protest against Erdogan's Islamist-influenced government in defense of the country's secular political traditions, The Associated Press reported. Local media estimated that around one million people took part.

"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," flag-waving protesters shouted as they demanded the resignation of the government and called Erdogan a traitor.

Others chanted: "The roads to Cankaya (the presidential palace) are closed to imams."

"This government is the enemy of Ataturk," said 63-year-old Ahmet Yurdakul, a retired public worker, invoking the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founded of the modern Turkish republic. "They want to drag Turkey to the dark ages."

The rally was the second anti-government demonstration in two weeks after around 300,000 people gathered in the capital, Ankara, a fortnight ago.

"Neither Sharia, nor coup but fully democratic Turkey," read a banner carried by a demonstrator, in reference to Friday's statement by the military which attracted condemnation Saturday by Turkey's government as well from the European Union, the U.S. and human rights groups.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said Erdogan had spoken to Turkey's top general, Yasar Buyukanit, adding that the military statement was "not acceptable in a democratic order."

"The chief of the General Staff is answerable to the Prime Minister," Cicek said, AP reported.

EU expresses concern
In Brussels, EU enlargement chief Olli Rehn said it was watching events in Ankara with concern, Reuters reported.

"It is important that the military leaves the remit of democracy to the democratically elected government and this is a test case if the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularism and the democratic arrangement of civil-military relations," said Rehn.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried called for democracy to be respected: "We hope and expect that the Turks will work out these political issues in their own way, in a way that's consistent with their secular democracy and constitutional provisions."

Turkish human rights campaigners also condemned the statement by the army, which has ousted four governments in the past 50 years -- most recently in 1997 when it overthrew an Islamist-influenced government in which Gul and Erdogan served.

"The statement has damaged our country's democracy and our state of law," said the Ankara-based Human Rights Association.

Mehmet Agar, leader of the center-right opposition True Path Party, told reporters: "Turkey's problems must be solved by civilian politics."

But some protesters on Sunday expressed support for the army's stance, AP said.

"In a country like Turkey, which is not fully a democracy, the role of the army is a little different," said 50-year-old civil engineer Haydar Kilic. "The army here likes democracy, we know that."

Mehmet Gunes, 39, whose wife was wearing an Islamic-style headscarf, said: "We support what the army said. It's a warning. My wife wears a headscarf -- we're not against that. We came here to stand up for a secular, enlightened Turkey. Our children's future is important."

Emergency talks
Erdogan and Gul held emergency talks on Saturday following Gul's failure by 10 votes to secure his election in Friday's parliamentary session.

Parliament members are slated to vote a second time next Wednesday. A two-thirds majority again will be needed to elect a president in the second round. If voting goes to a third round a simple majority will do.

Opposition lawmakers want Erdogan, who leads the Justice and Development Party, to call an early general election instead, according to journalist Andrew Finkel in Ankara.

The probability that Gul, whose wife wears the traditional Muslim head scarf, will become the president -- possibly bolstering the role of religion in politics -- has caused unease in the vastly secular nation.

"We don't want a covered woman in Ataturk's presidential palace," said Ayse Bari, a 67-year-old housewife, during Sunday's protests, AP reported. "We want civilized, modern people there."

"They have to hear us, because we are the majority of the country. We are 70 percent," said Emine Hacioglu, 35.

-- CNN's Talia Kayali in Atlanta and journalist Andrew Finkel in Ankara contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.


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