updated 4/14/2007 6:53:39 AM ET 2007-04-14T10:53:39

More than 200,000 Turks protested against Turkey’s Islamic-rooted prime minister Saturday, demonstrating the intense opposition he could face from Turkey’s secular establishment if he decides to run for president next month.

Protesters called on the government to resign and chanted slogans including, “We don’t want an imam as president.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has brandished his strong religious convictions while at the same time pushing Turkey toward European Union membership, represents a challenge to secularists’ traditional approach to government in this 99-percent Muslim country. Many fear that if he or someone close to him wins the presidency, the government will be able to implement an Islamist agenda without opposition.

But with Erdogan’s popularity and firm control over parliament, his opponents may have little power to stop him if he does decide to run. His party was elected to an overwhelming majority in parliament and can appoint whomever it wants to the presidency.

The pro-secular military retains a strong influence over politics, however, and in 1997 generals pressured Erdogan’s mentor out of the prime minister’s office because he was viewed as excessively religious. Any serious tensions between the government and the military could have a serious effect on the economy, analysts warn.

'Turkey is secular'
Tens of thousands traveled from across the country overnight to attend the rally in downtown Ankara. Police cordoned off the meeting area — near the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey and the symbol of its secular identity. Police on the scene estimated the crowd at more than 200,000.

Many residents in the capital hung flags out of their balconies or windows in support of the rally. Protesters shouted, “Turkey is secular and will remain secular.” Many draped themselves in Turkish flags and carried posters of Ataturk.

“I’m here to prevent Recep Tayyip Erdogan from becoming president,” said Serkan Ozcan, a 30-year-old engineer who traveled nearly 370 miles from Izmir to attend the rally. “Never has someone of that mentality been president and never will there be.”

Turkey’s staunchly pro-secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, said Friday that the threat Islamic fundamentalism posed to the country was higher than ever — a warning clearly directed at Erdogan.

“For the first time, the pillars of the secular republic are being openly questioned,” Sezer said in an address to military officers.

Inching toward religious rule?
Erdogan’s government denies it has an Islamic agenda, but critics say the government is inching the country toward increased religious rule.

The prime minister has stoked secularist concerns by speaking out against restrictions on wearing Islamic-style head scarves in government offices and schools and taking steps to bolster religious institutions. He also tried to criminalize adultery before being forced to back down under intense EU pressure, and some party-run municipalities have taken steps to ban alcohol consumption.

Sezer steps down on May 16. Parliament, which is dominated by lawmakers from Erdogan’s party, will elect the new president early next month. Erdogan’s party was expected to announce its candidates for the position this month.

“We hope that someone who is loyal to the principles of the republic — not just in words but in essence — is elected president,” Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the military, said Thursday in a statement widely interpreted as a warning to Erdogan not to run.

The fiercely secular generals staged three coups between 1960 and 1980, and in 1997 led a campaign that pressured Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s pro-Islamic government out of power.

The rally was organized by Sener Eruygur, president of the Ataturk Thought Association and former commander of Turkey’s paramilitary forces.

Move toward a presidential system?
Although largely ceremonial, the presidency has become a symbol for secularism under Sezer. A former Constitutional Court judge, he has vetoed a record number of laws he deemed to be in violation of the secular constitution and has blocked efforts to appoint hundreds of reportedly Islamic-oriented candidates to important civil service positions.

Adding to secularists’ concerns over an Erdogan run, some members of Erdogan’s party have floated the idea of moving Turkey toward a U.S.-style presidential system with a more powerful executive rather than the current parliamentary system.

The generally pro-government newspaper Zaman reported Friday that Erdogan had ordered his party to avoid talk of moving toward a presidential system until after the elections.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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