Turkey Crisis Cools as Court Nulls Vote

The country's high court rules a parliament vote for president was unconstitutional, triggering early general elections but angering the Prime Minister

A Tuesday high court ruling has eased tensions surrounding presidential elections in Turkey and made a military intervention unlikely. Still, the secularists remain worried that political Islam is gaining too much power in the country. And Prime Minister Erdogan is unhappy.

The climax of the political crisis in Turkey -- pitting the Islamic-rooted government against the secular elite backed by the military -- was hard to miss. Following a massive Sunday demonstration which saw a million pro-secularists take to the streets of Istanbul, the entire country on Tuesday was waiting with bated breath for the high court's decision on whether to allow the vote for the country's next president to go ahead despite opposition complaints of irregularities. And when it came, it was as if the entire country breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The Turkish high court on Tuesday evening ruled that a first-round parliamentary vote for president was unconstitutional because too few legislators took part -- a decision which paves the way for early general elections in Turkey and likely delays the presidential vote. With the opposition boycotting last Friday's poll, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was unable to muster the two-thirds quorum necessary, thus nullifying the balloting, the court found.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in comments on Tuesday, accepted the decision. But on Wednesday he made his anger with the verdict clear, and questioned the Constitutional Court's decision to annul the first-round vote in parliament, which is responsible for choosing the country's president.

"The election for president in the parliament has been blocked. It has made it almost impossible for the parliament to elect a president in the future," Erdogan told a gathering of his party in Ankara. "The Constitutional Court decision is a bullet aimed at democracy."

On Tuesday following the court verdict, Erdogan urged Turkey to move toward a system where the president is chosen by voters rather than by the parliament.

"With the decision of the Constitutional Court, the parliamentary democratic system has now been blocked," Erdogan said. "To get rid of this blockade and lift the rule of the minority over the majority, the only door to go to is the nation. Then we are going to the nation."

Erdogan's party on Wednesday appealed to parliament to set general elections for the earliest possible date of June 24. The prime minister hopes that early elections will resolve the crisis which saw the Turkish stock market tumble and the country's military issue a statement that it was "the absolute defender of secularism" and would prove it if need be.

At issue is the candidacy of current Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, a long time confidante of Erdogan's and fellow member of the AKP. Like most leading AKP members, Gül too has a background in political Islam, a branch of Turkish politics that the country's secular elite views with intense suspicion. Like Erdogan, Gül belonged to a series of parties which were disbanded for being too religiously oriented before founding the AKP in 2001. When the party won the general elections in 2002, Gül jumped in as prime minister due to Erdogan's having been temporarily banned from political life for reading an Islamist poem in public.

Gül, despite enjoying respect for his unflagging determination in steering Turkey toward the European Union, is also controversial due to the fact that his wife, like Erdogan's, wears the headscarf, a controversial symbol in Turkey. The founder of modern Turkey in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, banned religious dress in schools, universities and government buildings. Secularists remain uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in a headscarf occupying the presidential palace.

Top on the list of those worried about a creeping Islamization in Turkey is the country's military. The army was blasted by the EU for its Friday statement threatening to get involved should the AKP also gain control of the presidency. And the Council of Europe, a human rights organization, also criticized the army. "I am very concerned about the recent public statement by the Turkish military. This statement looks like a deliberate attempt by the armed forces to influence the election of a new President in Turkey. They should stay in their barracks and keep out of politics," said Terry Davis, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, in a statement on Sunday.

The concern about the military staging a coup remains a real one in Turkey. As recently as 1997, the military sent tanks into the street to push pro-Islamic Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of power. It was the fourth military coup Turkey had seen since 1960, all of them justified as attempts to maintain the secularism established by Atatürk.

The AKP says that Gül is still its candidate for president, and the party enjoys widespread popularity in Turkey, raising the possibility that the party will be returned to parliament with a majority similar to the commanding one it currently enjoys. But it is far from a foregone conclusion. Turkey's quirky election system, which requires parties to get at least 10 percent of the vote before they can enter parliament, means that the AKP enjoyed an absolute majority after having received only 33 percent in the last elections. Should the country's fragmented opposition find a way to join forces, the results in June could look quite different.

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