Helena Smith and Ned Temko / The Observer – 2007-04-29 00:48:15
ANKARA (April 29, 2007) — Turkey came under mounting pressure from the European Union last night to rein in the influence of its generals, after the country’s powerful pro-secular military threatened to intervene in the Islamic-oriented government amid growing turmoil over the election of a new President.
Olli Rehn, the European Union enlargement commissioner, who has been a keen supporter of Ankara’s eventual accession to the bloc, warned the military to stay out of politics, saying the election was a ‘test case’ for the Turkish military’s respect for democracy.
Rehn issued the salvo after Turkey’s general staff weighed in on the dispute, saying they would not flinch at intervention if it meant upholding the Muslim state’s cherished secular values.
The country’s secular elite has voiced grave concerns over the government’s choice of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as a presidential candidate, given the politician’s Islamist beliefs — his wife and daughter wear the headscarf.
‘The Chief of the General Staff is answerable to the Prime Minister,’ declared Cemil Cicek, justice Minister in the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is a former Islamist but has pledged his commitment to Turkey’s secular political system. Military intervention would be ‘inconceivable in a democratic state,’ Cicek said.
Within hours of Gul’s failure to win enough votes in a first round of balloting on Friday, the military, which has staged four coups in the past 50 years, posted a statement on its website invoking its role as defender of the country’s secular traditions as laid out by Turkey’s modern soldier-statesman founder, Mustafa Ataturk.
‘In recent days, the problem during the presidential election has focused on secularism discussions,’ the statement said. ‘This situation has been anxiously followed by the Turkish armed forces. The Turkish armed forces maintains its firm determination to carry out its clearly specified duties to protect these principles and has absolute loyalty and belief in this determination.’
The statement then went on to list the ruling AK party’s perceived violations of secularism, including the fact that some headmasters had been allowed to order the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.
The military made the announcement after the secular opposition appealed to the state’s constitutional court to cancel the election.
Many fear that if elected, Gul would be in a position to do away with the checks and balances built into system by eroding the secular nature of the courts and other autonomous bodies and appointing Islamic-oriented candidates to powerful civil service positions.
Recently, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the prospect of the Prime Minister running in the election, whose second round takes place this week.
According to Professor Ahmet Evin, who teaches political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University: ‘People fear that if someone who is suspected of having Islamist leanings takes control of the post, it will allow the AK party to move ahead on its Islamist agenda.’
A former firebrand, Erdogan has fiercely denied that he has a hidden agenda, but critics say his actions often speak louder than words.
Since assuming office nearly five years ago, he has publicly endorsed the lifting of restrictions on women wearing Islamic-style headscarves in government offices and schools, attempted to outlaw adultery and approved of alcohol bans by AK party-run municipalities.
In the first round of the election last week, Gul failed to reach the two-thirds vote he needed to win. A second vote is scheduled for Wednesday, when he will need a simple majority.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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