- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

From combined dispatches

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey headed yesterday for early parliamentary elections on July 22 to settle a standoff between the Islamist-rooted government and the secular elite over the country’s strict separation of mosque and state.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed the early vote a day after Turkey’s highest court ruled that the first round of a presidential election was invalid, a defeat for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The opposition boycotted the first round of the vote in parliament, preventing the required quorum and forcing the country toward early elections. The court ruled that without a quorum the election was invalid.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, an AKP member and the only presidential candidate, is a former Islamist whose wife wears an Islamic head scarf. Opponents fear Mr. Gul as president and Mr. Erdogan as prime minister would push Turkey toward an Islamist agenda, something they both deny.

“We made a decision which will end all of the controversies and give the word to the nation. Our dear nation will present its preference of the future,” Mr. Erdogan said.

Parliament’s constitutional committee proposed holding the vote on July 22 rather than June 24 as proposed by the AKP. CNN Turk quoted Mr. Erdogan as saying he had no objection. Parliament’s general assembly was expected to approve the date. The election was originally slated for Nov. 4.

Mr. Erdogan and the AKP are expected to win a second term after five years of strong economic growth since coming to power in 2002.

The party also announced a plan to hold a referendum, perhaps on election day, if it fails to get the opposition’s backing to amend the constitution so that the president would be elected by popular vote, not by parliament.

A threat by the army, which regards itself as the guardian of the secular system, to intervene in the presidential vote, the opposition boycott of the first round and an anti-government rally of up to 1 million people on Sunday sharply increased tension in Turkey.

The army has ousted four governments since 1960, the last in 1997 when it acted against a Cabinet in which Mr. Gul served.

The United States and European Union yesterday warned Turkey to prevent the military from defying civilian leaders in the standoff.

“The United States fully supports Turkish democracy and its constitutional processes, and that means that the election, the electoral system and the results of the electoral system and the results of the constitutional process have to be upheld,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Egypt yesterday.

Asked if the United States agreed with Europe’s call for the military to stay out of the dispute, she said: “Yes. The answer is yes, the U.S. would be in a similar position.”

The U.S. ambassador in Turkey, Ross Wilson, has been meeting with Turkish officials urging that constitutional procedures be followed in resolving the crisis.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said Mr. Wilson has been stressing the need for Turkey to stick to a path that ensures that the “people can have their say.”

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