U.S. and European Union warn Turkish military to stay out of politics

Thursday, May 3, 2007

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The United States and European Union on Wednesday warned Turkey, a NATO member and close ally, to prevent its military from defying civilian leaders in a conflict between the Islamic-rooted government and the secular establishment.

Fears of a coup have ebbed with the prospect of early general elections, but the military's threat to intervene in the showdown and stamp out any sign of political Islam has confirmed its traditional role as a key player in Turkish politics.

Many Turks had believed the military, which seized power from civilian governments three times in past decades, was inexorably withdrawing from the political arena as Turkey pursued EU-backed reforms and its economy accelerated after a financial crisis.

But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision to back the candidacy of one of his closest allies as president underestimated the backlash. At the heart of the conflict was fear the ruling party would use control of both Parliament and the presidency to chip away at the separation of state and religion, and curb secular freedoms.

Erdogan's party called for new elections Wednesday after the secular opposition last week boycotted a parliamentary vote on Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's candidacy and was backed by the Constitutional Court, a secular body that invalidated the ballot because a quorum was not present.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined the EU in warning the Turkish military, which is fiercely devoted to the secular ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an army officer who founded the modern republic.

"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," she said.

Asked if the U.S. agreed with Europe's call for the military to stay out of the dispute, Rice 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, Deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Wilson has been stressing the need for Turkey to stick to a path that ensures that the "people can have their say."

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Turkey must abide by the rule of law and civilian control over the military, warning that if the government wanted to join the EU "it needs to respect these principles."

The military declared Friday that it was a champion of secularism and would display its "attitudes" if necessary. In the view of some analysts, the ominous statement turned back the clock a decade or more to a time when politicians could scarcely afford to ignore the political views of the army brass.

It is hard to gauge whether the military statement influenced the court decision to cancel the presidential vote. But the judges were likely deliberating with the knowledge that a ruling in favor of the Islamic-leaning candidate would ratchet up tension and increase the possibility of more overt action by the military.

The military appears willing to preserve secularism even if it means risking the ire of its European partners. Besides, many Turks doubt the EU is serious about admitting them to their club. Army officers have cited the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as a scenario they want to avoid, even if the possibility seems remote in Turkey.

The U.S. will be wary about putting too much political pressure on Turkey, whose military wants more leeway in fighting Kurdish rebels operating from bases across the border in U.S.-occupied Iraq. Similarly, the EU does not want to alienate Turkey, which is growing in importance as a pathway for energy supplies from the Middle East and Central Asia.

With Gul's candidacy in disarray, Erdogan chose early elections as a way to defuse tension. He proposed June 24 for the vote, but Turkey's electoral board suggested July 22. Parliament's constitutional committee approved July 22 late Wednesday and parliament was expected to endorse the date Thursday. The summer is a difficult time to hold elections in Turkey because many people are on vacation, and school buildings where voting is usually held are needed for school exams.

The markets rose Wednesday after the call for early elections, a welcome respite from the market jitters and huge, pro-secular demonstrations in past days.

"To interpret Turkey as if it is divided into two camps is murder," Erdogan said. "Even if our views and life styles are different, we are one nation and one Turkey."

But he said the decision by the nation's highest court to cancel the presidential vote "has made it almost impossible for the Parliament to elect a president in the future. This is a bullet fired at democracy."

With new elections, Erdogan could win another strong majority that would allow him to implement more economic reforms and initiatives geared to Turkey's EU bid. But secularist parties could band together to win more legislative seats, leading to a coalition government and potential squabbling among factions.

Erdogan's party said it wants to hold a new presidential vote Sunday. Erdogan also wants a referendum if necessary on a constitutional amendment allowing the president to be elected by popular vote.

The ruling party has tried to ban adultery and forbidden the sale of alcohol in cafes run by its municipalities. It has encouraged religious schools and has spoken of ending the prohibition on Islamic head scarves in public offices and schools. Still, the ruling party has stated its commitment to secularism and has a strong reform record.

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