Sunday, April 29, 2007

Trouble in Turkey. Democracy really sucks when the people you dislike win. Or so it seems

Turkey's Gul defies army and protests

Turks wave their national flags to oppose the...

By Paul de Bendern and Thomas Grove

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul refused on Sunday to withdraw from Turkey's presidential vote, defying pressure from the army and calls from hundreds of thousands of demonstrators worried about his Islamist past.

The protesters, waving red and white Turkish flags and anti-government placards at an Istanbul rally, denounced Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Gul as a threat to Turkey's secular order separating state and religion, and they praised the army.

"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," the protesters chanted on Caglayan Square in Turkey's largest city, the second mass rally against the Islamist-rooted AK Party in two weeks.

But in a sign of the once mighty army's waning influence in this European Union candidate country, Gul said he would remain the ruling AK Party's candidate.

Such defiance would have been unthinkable 10 years ago when the army, with public support and without tanks, last ousted a democratically elected government.

"The process (of electing a president) has begun and will continue ... There can be no question of my candidacy being withdrawn," Gul told reporters in the capital Ankara.

The AK Party denies an Islamist agenda. It has presided over strong economic growth, booming foreign investment and the launch of EU membership talks since sweeping to power in 2002.

The AK Party, which is expected to win general elections due by November, has also cut the powers of the military as part of its EU reform drive.

But secularists, including the generals, say Erdogan and Gul will show their true colours once they have the presidency, the last major state institution outside their control, and boost the role of religion in Turkish life.

"Turkey is under threat from the AK Party leadership... We will not be able to express our thoughts like this if they stay in power," said protester Cigdem Yilmaz, 22, a student.

The army General Staff raised the stakes in its row with Erdogan's government on Friday, hours after an inconclusive first round of voting in parliament on Gul's nomination, with a threat to intervene in the election to defend secularism.

The government, backed by the EU, human rights groups and even opposition parties, told the army not to meddle.


The Istanbul protesters, numbering at least 200,000 according to police estimates, said they backed the army, long viewed here as the ultimate guardian of the secular republic.

"The army did the right thing (in opposing Gul's candidacy) but I don't think they'll do what they did in the 1980s," said Ipek Hamzaoglu, referring to a 1980 military coup.

"We're a Muslim country but we don't want to live like in Iran," said Hamzaoglu, an 18-year-old student.

Secularists are worried by Gul's Islamist past and the fact his wife wears the Muslim headscarf. Turkey bans the headscarf from universities and public offices.

"As a woman I want to be free... We are here to protest against being covered," said Canan Karatay, president of Istanbul Science University.

The Istanbul rally mirrored a similar one in Ankara two weeks ago against Erdogan running for president. After that protest, Erdogan nominated the more conciliatory Gul.

A second round of voting in parliament on Gul's nomination is set for Wednesday, though he is not expected to secure enough votes from deputies until a third round scheduled for May 9.

But the main secularist opposition party has asked the Constitutional Court to rule the presidential election invalid. The court says it will try to deliver its verdict by Wednesday.

If the strongly secularist court upholds the opposition appeal, Erdogan must call an early parliamentary election. Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer would remain in office until a new parliament could choose his successor.

If the court backs the government, the presidential election process would continue.

The EU, which began accession talks with Turkey in 2005, and the United States, Ankara's NATO ally, have both called for a democratic and constitutional resolution of the crisis.

Original article posted here.

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