Standoff Develops in Turkey Over Moderate Islamist

Turkey's secularist politicians backed by the once-omnipotent military establishment are trying to block the election of a moderate Islamist as the country's new president.

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Presidential elections have touched off a quickly developing political crisis in Turkey. Today, the country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, went on television and appealed for national unity. Last Friday, the Turkish military issued a blunt statement warning against the election of a moderate Islamist as the country's new president. A Turkish court is now deciding whether the election should be cancelled.

NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.

IVAN WATSON: Turkish embattled prime minister took to the airwaves today with this prerecorded speech.

Prime Minister RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN (Turkey): (Turkish spoken)

WATSON: Sitting next to a Turkish flag, Erdogan described the economic growth the country has enjoyed in the four years since his moderate Islamist party was elected. He also called for unity and stability but he made no mentioned of the political crisis now roiling the country.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

WATSON: Yesterday, close to a million people gathered in the streets of Istanbul to protest against Erdogan's candidate for president, the current Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Waiving red and white Turkish flags, the demonstrators chanted: Turkey is secular and it will remain secular and no mullahs in the presidential palace.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

WATSON: The protesters fear that if Gul is elected, it would mean that moderate Islamists would control both the presidency and the government, and that could threaten the secular system of government in this Muslim-majority country.

Mr. NAMIK KANJAR(ph) (Political Scientist): This country belongs to us and we shall protect it.

WATSON: Namik Kanjar is a political scientist who joined yesterday's rally. Like many others here, he defended the Turkish military's intervention in the presidential election.

Mr. KANJAR: It is just a warning. They say be careful to the politicians. Be careful.

WATSON: In Turkey, parliament elects the president. But in the first round of voting last Friday, secular opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote, depriving parliament of the necessary quorum to choose a president in the first round. That was followed by the late-night warning posted on the Internet by Turkey's powerful military establishment. The generals said they were deeply concerned about the presidential election and added that they would act if need be to defend Turkey's secular system.

Mr. BULENT ALI REZA (Turkish Expert, Center for Strategic and International Studies): The military is very much back in the picture and whichever way you look at it that is an intervention.

WATSON: Bulent Ali Reza is a Turkish expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says Turkey could be on the verge of another coup.

Mr. REZA: Frankly, this is not the kind of scenario that people had in mind. Once Turkey was described as a country that was on the verge of joining the European Union and that this kind of event was behind it. Obviously, that's not the case.

WATSON: The Turkish military has had a direct hand in the overthrow of four civilian governments in the last 50 years. The most recent case being in 1997 when an Islamist prime minister was ousted. In this case, presidential hopeful Abdullah Gul responded to the army's warning by saying he would not withdraw his candidacy. The fate of the election now rests with Turkey's constitutional court. If it decides Friday's vote was invalid, Turkey must hold snap general elections.

But there are already doubts about the court's objectivity. We're not sure whether the verdict will be decided by the military and imposed on the judges. One Turkish lawmaker said, on condition of anonymity, once you turned your back on parliament, he added, anything can happen.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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