Fri, May 04, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Parliament sets date for Turkey's general elections

CHURCH VS STATE The prime minister hopes the polls will avert a political crisis brewing as a result of his attempt to install an Islamic figure as president


A Turkish parliamentary committee on Wednesday set July 22 as the date for snap general elections after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for polls to end a simmering crisis over a disputed presidential vote.

The date has to be voted into law by parliament to become official, which should be a formality since all parties represented in the house favor the early elections.

The move to hold early general elections eases a conflict between the Islam-based government and secular forces in the short term, but the crisis over how to deal with political Islam in this Western-looking democracy appears far from resolved.

Turkish society is deeply divided, and secular Turks have resorted to controversial means -- a parliamentary boycott, mass protests and a threat of military intervention -- in an attempt to erode the power of Erdogan, who they fear is trying to drag Turkey toward Islamic rule.

Until recently, Erdogan looked certain to use his majority in parliament to consolidate his control over the entire executive by installing a close ally, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, in the presidency. But the backlash against the move seems to have caught him by surprise and could lead instead to a dramatic reshuffling of Turkey's government.

It has also intensified a debate on reforming the way Turkey's representative system works.

In response to Erdogan's choice for president, hundreds of thousands of secular Turks protested against the ruling party in Istanbul and Ankara, and the opposition boycotted a parliamentary session and filed a successful appeal to the Constitutional Court to have the first round of voting for president annulled. The pro-secular military threatened to intervene to curb the rise of political Islam.

On Wednesday, Erdogan called the Constitutional Court decision a "bullet fired at democracy," but said he would abide by it. He had little choice.

Looming in the background of Turkey's democratic process is the military. The institution has carried out three coups since 1960 and nudged a pro-Islamic premier out of power in 1997, but is widely respected and traditionally has the final word on how to enforce the separation of religion and state.

"It must not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are a party to this debate and are the absolute defenders of secularism," the military said in a statement released just before midnight on Friday. "When necessary, they will demonstrate their attitudes and behaviors in a clear and open way. Let no one doubt this."

The threat of overthrowing an elected government prompted condemnation from leaders in the EU, which Turkey wants to join. But many Turks say the role of Turkey's military is poorly understood abroad and that by undermining it, Westerners actually undermine Turkish democracy.

Erdogan's party has raised secularist hackles primarily because it has its roots in Turkey's Islamist political movement, and Erdogan even spent time in jail in 1999 for challenging the secular system. But it rose to power in 2002 on an anti-corruption platform, riding a wave of dissatisfaction with the previous government.

Zeyno Baran, an analyst for the Hudson Institute, said in a presentation to the US Senate that the current crisis illustrated a dangerous tendency by Turks to vote irresponsibly because they relied excessively on the military to "save them" if anything went wrong, and also pointed to fundamental flaws in the Turkish representational system.

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