- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

NICOSIA, Cyprus — As many as 1 million people marched under a sea of red national flags yesterday in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, demanding that the Islamist ruling party withdraw its choice of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to be the next president.

The extraordinary rebuke to the country’s growing Islamist movement came just two days after the Turkish Army — which sees itself as defenders of the nation’s secular tradition — issued a blunt warning against the drift toward Islamist rule.

Yesterday’s march in Istanbul dwarfed a similar demonstration in Ankara two weeks ago, where the turnout was estimated at 300,000 people. The Associated Press quoted police putting the size of yesterday’s crowd at 700,000, and Agence France-Presse (AFP) cited police estimates in excess of 1 million.

Among the chants from the crowd were: “Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” “Government resign,” and a refrain that the presidential palace is “closed to imams.”

Following the earlier demonstration in Ankara, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party backed away from a plan to put forward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for president, nominating the more moderate Mr. Gul instead. The president is chosen by a vote of parliament, where Mr. Gul’s party is dominant.

Mr. Gul refused to step aside in the face of the latest protest, AFP reported. “It is out of the question for me to withdraw my candidacy in any way,” he was quoted as saying in Ankara.

But the government was already on the defensive over the rhetorical broadside delivered on Friday by the military, which has mounted three coups since 1960 in its self-appointed role as the nation’s defender of principles laid out by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In 1997, the military peacefully forced out of office a strongly Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan.

Despite its control of parliament, the AK Party failed to elect Mr. Gul in a first round of voting on Friday as some opposition parties boycotted the vote and called for the Constitutional Court to annul the process.

“It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism,” the military declared in a formal statement shortly afterward. “When necessary, it will display its stance and attitudes very clearly. No one should doubt that.”

Mr. Erdogan responded that such a statement from the military should be “inconceivable in a democratic state.” Officials of the European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, issued their own concern.

A second vote is scheduled to take place Wednesday.

Mr. Gul, Turkey’s leading negotiator for EU membership, has pledged to adhere to the republic’s secular principles if elected. Turkey’s negotiations with the European Union are stalled over the extent of its reforms and Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot government, an EU member.

Figuring in the increasingly acerbic debate is the fact that Mr. Gul’s wife — like the wife of Mr. Erdogan — ostentatiously wears an Islamic head scarf at official functions.

Although not mentioned in the Koran, such headdress has become part of the political message of Islamists, and its displays have played into the hands of secular forces and in effect jeopardized the careers of their husbands.

The latest statement by the general staff of the Turkish Armed Forces was unusual at a time when Turkey is trying to curb the military’s influence so as to conform to EU principles.

The generals and admirals accused Islamic politicians of “endless effort to disturb fundamental values of the republic” and of activities that “have turned into an open challenge against the state.”

During the coups staged in 1960, 1971 and 1980, the military claimed it acted to save Turkey from turmoil and political abuse. The troops returned to barracks after conducting purges and trials.

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