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Turkish Court Blocks Islamic Candidate

ICC NOTE: Turkey is very much at a crossroads in regards to the direction of government, and to what degree religion will influence it.


5/2/07 Turkey For the full article (NY Times) — Turkey ’s highest court on Tuesday blocked a presidential candidate with a background in Islamic politics, pitching the country into early elections and a referendum on the role of religion in its future.

In a 9-to-2 ruling, the court upheld an appeal by Turkey’s main secular political party, which sought to block Abdullah Gul, a close ally of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from becoming president, objecting to what they said were his Islamic credentials.

But Mr. Gul, an observant Muslim who is Turkey’s foreign minister, has kept Islam out of public policy in his four years in government, and his supporters said the decision was simply an attempt to hold on to power by Turkey’s secular elite, which has controlled the state since Ataturk’s revolution in 1923.

Turkey is an important American ally and its stability is seen as crucial in a troubled region. It shares borders with Iran , Iraq and Syria . It is a member of NATO and has good relations with Israel . It has also been critical for the American military in Iraq , providing an air base in the south of the country that supplies much of northern and central Iraq .

In the ruling, the court annulled a vote for Mr. Gul held in Parliament on Friday because there were not enough lawmakers present. Secular parties boycotted the vote.

But the ruling was more political than legal, his supporters charged. Previous presidents have been elected with fewer lawmakers present in the first round of voting. The court, they argue, reflects the interests of a secular establishment that is now mounting an assault against Mr. Erdogan and the emerging class of religious Turks that he represents.

The court “is a product of the military coup in 1960,” said Eser Karakas, a professor at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul . The court was formed after the coup to interpret the Constitution, which enshrines secularism at the heart of the state.

In remarks broadcast Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan said his party would press for early elections in late June or early July. Parliament must vote to begin elections, but the measure is supported by parties across the political spectrum and is expected to pass.

He also made what is likely to be a highly controversial proposal that would take the presidential selection process out of the hands of Parliament altogether and place it in a popular vote, which he would like to see happen soon, but which is unlikely to affect the current election. Turkey is a parliamentary system, and Turks vote for parties, which then form governments based on their allotment in Parliament.

Currently the president, Turkey ’s highest-ranking secular official, is elected by Parliament. The president commands the military, vetoes legislation and appoints judges. “There is nowhere more beautiful than the ballot box for criticism,” Mr. Erdogan said.

“In order to free ourselves from this blockage,” he continued, “the only place to go is to the nation that indisputably owns sovereignty.”

Mr. Erdogan’s confidence springs from the vast network that his party, known by its Turkish initials AK, has established in the grass roots of Turkish society. He represents the conservative heartland, which for years had been on the periphery but now is moving into the mainstream, since its constituents migrated in vast numbers to the cities and were elevated by an economic boom.

Some analysts expected him to come out even stronger in early elections. His party currently holds 351 seats in the 550-member Parliament.

The open question on Tuesday night was what action, if any, Turkey ’s powerful military would take. The military sees itself as the defender of Ataturk’s secular legacy and has ousted four elected governments since 1960. It issued a sharp warning to the government on Friday night that it would intervene if Mr. Erdogan strayed too far from the secularism that is the backbone of the state.

Turkish political analysts said Tuesday that the military was unlikely to intervene for now, thinking it had won a victory with the court decision. But some said the secular parties seem to be overestimating their popularity.

Mr. Gul, 56, an English speaker who has led Turkey ’s push to join the European Union, tried to allay Turkish fears on Tuesday.

“If I had had a secret agenda as claimed, if those concerns were truly a part of my secret agenda, the European Union membership could not have been my policy,” he said.

Then, in a conciliatory tone unusual for members of his party, who ordinarily dismiss secular concerns as old-fashioned and unreasonable, Mr. Gul added, “But if there are concerns as such, we need to work together to understand and correct them.”

Heightening the tension was the arrest of more than 500 protestors, who were marching in an unauthorized May Day rally unrelated to the current political impasse. Television networks broadcast images of police officers in riot gear beating demonstrators and spraying them with pepper gas. The Turkish stock market continued its fall, and Mr. Erdogan made public remarks to restore faith in it.

His supporters deplored the court’s decision as unfair.

“In the last four years I’ve been going around Europe saying that Turkey has made all these reforms and it is a democratic place,” said Egemen Bagis, an adviser to Mr. Erdogan and a lawmaker. “Now I don’t know what to tell them. Turkey doesn’t deserve this.”

Deniz Baykal, the leader of the secular Republican People’s Party, which appealed to the court, hailed its action. “From now on, no party has the chance to dictate a president,” he said on national television. The verdict “will claim its place in legal history as highly respectable and important.”

The changes in Turkish society have raised concerns among secular Turks that their lifestyles will not be respected once the rank and file of Mr. Erdogan’s party settle deeper into state institutions. That worry drew hundreds of thousands of secular protesters onto the streets here and in Istanbul last month.