- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

Turkey’s Islamist government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Does the prime minister want the country to follow in the Kemalist tradition of respecting the notion of laicite — the strict secular separation of mosque and state — as instituted by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, and eventually join the rest of Europe, or is he more intent on pushing the country into the Islamic court?

Turkey finds itself at a crucial crossroad today, hesitating between jumping into the European fray and flirting with Islamist fundamentalism. The ongoing delay imposed by Brussels on allowing Turkey into the European Union is certainly not helpful, either, as many Turks have started to question becoming part of the EU.

Turkey’s latest crisis began when Mr. Erdogan’s Islamic AKP — Justice and Development Party — set its eyes on the presidency. The position is largely ceremonial but still carries a certain amount of clout. The Turkish president, who serves a seven-year term, can block laws and official appointments. The president nominates the judges of the Constitutional Court and military advocates.

Winning the presidency would have consolidated the AKP’s power, but also set a precedent in the modern Turkish republic by mixing politics and religion.

According to the Turkish Constitution, the president is elected by the Parliament and not by universal balloting. Enjoying a clear majority in parliament with 353 seats, the AKP put forward the name of a single candidate — Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a longtime friend and associate of Mr. Erdogan.

Mr. Gul, who is also co-founder of the ruling moderate AKP, however, failed to win the necessary two-thirds majority of the Parliament, or 367 votes in the first round of voting. But a victory by Mr. Gul in a third round was a certain shoo-in, given that he would only need a simple majority to win.

Then there were massive demonstrations in the Turkish capital of Ankara and in its commercial center, Istanbul, with more than 1 million people taking to the streets in protest. And perhaps of greater importance was the not-so-thinly veiled threat from the country’s military — traditional guardians of the Kemalist secularist notion — of having the armed forces intervene.

The army general staff did not mince words: “The Turkish armed forces observe the situation with concern. Attacks on the basic values of the republic, in particular secularism, have escalated and developed into an open challenge to the state. In part, this is happening with the knowledge and the permission of the government authorities. The Turkish armed forces are against these discussions. They regard themselves as the guardians of the secular order and will openly make their position clear if necessary. Nobody should be in any doubt about this.”

That was enough to persuade the Turkish Constitutional Court to issue a ruling halting the presidential election. The court declared the first round of the election illegal on the grounds less than the required two-thirds of parliamentarians were present at the time of the vote. The CHP — the Republican People’s Party — the AKP’s only viable opposition, purposely boycotted the first round.

Mr. Erdogan’s response was to propose new parliamentary elections, believing he could do even better next time around.

Turkish politicians know better than to tempt their military. Turkey’s generals have intervened four times in the last 40 years to protect the secularist Kemalist tenet. Three coups d’etat — in 1960, 1971 and 1980 — brought the military out of their barracks and the politicians into line. The military’s latest incursion into the country’s politics was no later than in 1997, when they forced the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan, the head of government and leader of an Islamic party.

As could be expected, the EU has reacted with alarm to threats by Turkey’s military forces. A military coup at Europe’s doorstep is indeed a frightening prospect. But then again, so is an Islamist state for the vast majority of Europeans.

So maybe Europe can waste less time in opening its door to a secularist Turkey — while there is still one to contend with — and Mr. Gul could say gule gule (bye-bye in Turkish) to his presidential ambitions.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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