- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s highest court halted a parliamentary vote yesterday that looked certain to lead to a president rooted in political Islam. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by calling for a constitutional amendment to allow the president to be elected by popular vote, rather than by the parliament.

Mr. Erdogan also said new parliamentary elections could be held as early as June 24, instead of in November as scheduled.

The goal would be to elect a government with a fresh mandate and resolve a crisis in which the stock market has plummeted and the pro-secular military has threatened to intervene.

“God willing, Turkey will go back to its track,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters late yesterday, referring to the economic and political stability that Turkey had enjoyed in recent years.

Earlier, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, the ruling Islamist party’s presidential candidate, said he would not withdraw his candidacy despite the setback in the Constitutional Court, a strongly secular body. He urged parliamentary elections “as soon as possible.”

Mr. Erdogan said a new presidential vote would proceed in parliament tomorrow.

“We will apply to parliament starting tomorrow morning for early elections,” he said. “The earliest possible date for elections is June 24 or July 1.”

At the heart of the conflict is a fear that Mr. Gul’s party would use its control of both parliament and the presidency to overcome opposition to moving Turkey toward Islamic rule. More than 700,000 pro-secular Turks demonstrated in Istanbul on Sunday, many of them women who think political Islam would deprive them of personal freedoms and economic opportunities.

In his remarks yesterday, Mr. Erdogan said he would push for a referendum if necessary on a constitutional amendment allowing the president to be elected by popular vote.

“With the decision of the Constitutional Court, the parliamentary democratic system has now been blocked,” Mr. 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.”

Parliament elects the president in Turkey. Since 2002, it has been dominated by pro-Islamic politicians from Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party. In the first two rounds of voting, a candidate needs two-thirds of the lawmakers’ votes to win, but by the third he needs only a simple majority.

The Constitutional Court ruled yesterday that not enough legislators were present during the first round of voting on Friday, and canceled the round. The opposition had boycotted the vote, depriving the ruling party of a quorum of two-thirds of lawmakers in the 550-seat parliament.

The showdown has led to fears that the military could intervene and push the elected government out of power. Those concerns were heightened Friday when the army said it was watching the process with concern and reminded Turks that the army was “the absolute defender of secularism” and would act to prove it if necessary.

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