Turkey's Ruling Party Asks Parliament To Call Early Elections

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007, 7:20 am
By: News On 6

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ Turkey's Islamic-rooted ruling party asked parliament Wednesday to declare early general elections for June 24, a concession to a secular opposition that fears the leadership is plotting to impose Islamic values on their institutions and way of life.

But in a sign of the rift in Turkey, the prime minister criticized the nation's highest court, a strongly secular body, for canceling a vote that would likely have led to the election of a close ally to the presidency.

The decision, Erdogan told ruling party lawmakers, ``has made it almost impossible for the Parliament to elect a president in the future. This is a bullet fired at democracy.''

Long-running tensions between the government, whose leaders view Islam as a defining force in their lives, and a secular establishment backed by the military burst into the open last in a dispute over the presidential aspirations of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. The opposition boycotted a parliamentary vote on Gul's candidacy, and the Constitutional Court ourt ruled in favor of their appeal that the process was invalid because a quorum was not present.

Pro-secular demonstrators poured into the streets, the stock market tumbled and the military threatened to intervene.

A spokesman for the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, urged the country to respect civilian control over the military.

``The European Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law as well as the supremacy of democratic civilian power over the military,'' EU spokesman Johannes Laitenberger told reporters. He said that if Turkey wants to be member of the EU, ``it needs to respect these principles.''

The prime minister said Parliament would hold a new presidential vote on Thursday, but would abandon the process if a quorum is not reached again. Gul, whose wife covers her hair with an Islamic-style head scarf, has said he will not withdraw his candidacy.

With Gul's candidacy in disarray, Erdogan chose the option of early elections for Parliament as a way to defuse tension in a country that has endured military coups, economic chaos and weak coalition governments over the decades. The idea is that Turkey would benefit from a government with a fresh mandate, and Erdogan appealed for unity in the meantime.

``To interpret Turkey as if it is divided into two camps is murder,'' he said. ``Even if our views and lifestyles are different, we are one nation and one Turkey.''

Early elections are a gamble for Erdogan: he could win another strong majority that would allow him to implement more economic reforms and initiatives geared to EU membership, or secularist parties could band together to win more legislative seats.

At the heart of the conflict was a fear that the ruling party would use its control of both Parliament and the presidency to overcome opposition to moving Turkey toward Islamic rule.

Erdogan's party has tried to ban adultery and forbidden the sale of alcohol in cafes run by its municipalities. It has encouraged religious schools and has spoken of ending the prohibition on Islamic head scarves in public offices and schools.

More than 700,000 pro-secular Turks demonstrated in Istanbul on Sunday, many of them women who believe political Islam would deprive them of personal freedoms and economic opportunities.

Secularists are deeply skeptical of the government despite its stated commitment to secularism, as well as reforms aimed at gaining membership to the European Union. Erdogan once spent several months in jail after reciting an Islamic poem that prosecutors said had incited religious hatred.

The ruling party has advocated an eventual move toward a U.S.-style presidential system with a more powerful executive, adding to concerns about a president with an Islamist tilt.

Erdogan also said he would push for a referendum if necessary on a constitutional amendment allowing the president to be elected by popular vote.

``If we cannot get the Parliament to choose a president, we will take this subject to the people and we will find a way to open presidential elections to our people,'' he said.

In 1997, the military pushed pro-Islamic Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of power, sending tanks into the streets in a message that any concessions on secularism would not be permitted.

The founder of modern, secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, gave the vote to women, restricted Islamic dress and replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet. But Islam remains a powerful and attractive alternative for many Turks in this predominantly Muslim nation of more than 70 million.