Turkish politics in turmoil

Secular vs. religious tensions deepen as presidential vote is annulled by court

May 02, 2007|By Laura King

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The political crisis in Turkey deepened yesterday when the high court annulled parliament's initial round of voting for president, hampering the ruling party's efforts to install a former Islamist in a post occupied by secularists since the republic was founded.

The ruling Justice and Development Party said late yesterday that it would seek to speed up elections to choose a new parliament as a way to break the deadlock. Voting could take place as soon as June 24, nearly five months ahead of schedule.

The dispute has laid bare long-running tensions in a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population but a strong secular tradition. It also has raised painful questions about national identity, the viability of Turkey's democratic institutions and the country's desire to align itself with the West.

Meanwhile, violent May Day demonstrations in Istanbul, although unrelated to the presidential dispute, added to a growing sense of chaos. With tourists looking on, riot police plunged into groups of protesters in the city's main square, wielding truncheons and dousing demonstrators with water cannons and pepper spray. As many as 700 people were arrested, and hundreds were reported injured.

The televised beatings of unarmed demonstrators by police alarmed Turks who are concerned about the country's international image as it pursues its faltering bid to join the European Union.

Turkey's parliament has the duty of filling the presidency. The post carries limited powers, but the holder is considered the heir to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country's revered founding father. The president can veto laws and, in title at least, is commander in chief of the army.

Despite the court decision, the ruling party could carry on with its efforts to have its presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, elected by parliament in a series of votes originally scheduled to take place over the next two weeks.

The Justice and Development Party dominates the 550-seat chamber and can easily muster the simple majority required to elect Gul, but opposition parties prevented a quorum of 367 members from being present for a preliminary vote last week. That was the basis for yesterday's ruling by the Constitutional Court, which annulled the initial proceedings.

Party officials said a new first-round vote in parliament would be held tomorrow but acknowledged that the opposition might boycott that ballot, extending the stalemate. A date for early general elections could be set as soon as today.

The battle over who will accede to the presidency burst into the open this month when the ruling party appeared to be poised to name Prime Minister Reycep Tayyip Erdogan as its candidate.

Erdogan, an observant Muslim, has been lauded during his five-year tenure for presiding over strong economic growth. But he also has alarmed secularists by trying to make adultery a criminal offense and by seeking to ease the ban on Islamic headscarves in government offices and schools.

Last week, in an effort to defuse the confrontation, the ruling party named Gul as its presidential candidate. He, too, is a devout Muslim, but he is considered more moderate than Erdogan.

But Gul, too, has drawn the ire of secularists, who fear that anyone the ruling party chooses as its candidate would eventually try to erode Turkey's constitutionally required separation of Islam and state.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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