Turkey Is the Scene of Violent Rallies, Arrests

Turkey's Islamist-rooted government has vowed to press on with presidential elections after the top court annulled the first round of voting. This paves the way for early general elections. The opposition, backed by Turkey's powerful military establishment, is trying to block the election of a moderate Islamist as the country's new head of state.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, a court in Turkey invalidated the first round of last week's presidential election. Until this decision, Abdullah Gul stood poised to win the largely symbolic position of president. Gul represents the moderate Islamist party that controls the government and parliament, and his candidacy has been fiercely opposed by secularist lawmakers and the Turkish military.

NPR's Ivan Watson has more from Istanbul.

IVAN WATSON: For the first time in Turkish history, a presidential election has been declared invalid. The verdict struck a blow against Abdullah Gul, a soft-spoken diplomat who is the only candidate in last Friday's vote. Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that parliament, which elects the president in Turkey, failed to reach a quorum. The impasse was forced by opposition lawmakers who boycotted the vote amid accusations that if elected, Gul would allow the dismantling of Turkey's secular system of government.

Gul responded in an appearance on Turkish state television late today. Seated next to a photograph of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic.

Mr. ABDULLAH GUL (Presidential Candidate, Turkey): (Through translator) I have been Turkey's foreign minister for four and a half years. I represent Turkey to the entire world. If I cannot be trusted, there are not many people in Turkey who can be trusted.

WATSON: Gul urged lawmakers to make another attempt to hold the presidential election. If they again fail to reach a quorum, he said, parliament should be dissolved and general election should be held as soon as possible.

Mr. MEHMET ALI BIRAND (TV Anchor; Columnist, Turkish Daily News): Don't try to understand logically what's going on in my country. There is no logic.

WATSON: Mehmet Ali Birand is a Turkish TV anchorman and columnist.

Mr. BIRAND: There is a power struggle between secular forces and a more religiously conservative forces.

WATSON: On Friday, Turkey's powerful military establishment made clear its opposition to Gul's candidacy in a toughly worded and unprecedented statement on the army's Web page. That was followed by an anti-Gul street demonstration in Istanbul on Sunday attended by nearly a million protesters. And yet, if the government is forced to hold snap general elections now, Turkish analysts predict Gul and his party are likely to once again win the majority of seats in parliament.

Again, journalist Mehmet Ali Birand.

Mr. BIRAND: The problem is that we don't have a strong opposition. We don't have a very organized opposition. The opposition is on the street. People on the street is shouting and they're making life miserable to the government party, not just the opposition itself.

WATSON: As the political drama unfolded in Ankara, the Turkish capital, an unrelated crisis ground life to a halt here in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

WATSON: More than 10,000 riot police backed by helicopters clashed with leftist protesters holding an illegal May Day demonstration. Police fired teargas and were seen kicking, and clubbing unarmed demonstrators.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

WATSON: By midday, police said they had arrested nearly 600 people.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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