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Turkey’s ruling party asks for early elections

Turkey’s Islamic-rooted ruling party appealed to parliament Wednesday to declare early general elections to be held June 24, opening the way for an easing of tensions with the secular establishment.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the lawmakers of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara on Wednesday.Burhan Ozbilici / AP
/ Source: news services

Turkey’s ruling AK Party proposed on Wednesday bringing forward a parliamentary election to June 24 to ease tensions after an increasingly bitter standoff between the Islamist-rooted government and the secular elite.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called for an early election on Tuesday after losing a battle in Turkey’s highest court over a presidential election. The AK Party’s presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, is a former Islamist.

“Bringing forward the general election will reduce uncertainty,” Bulent Arinc, a senior AK Party member and parliamentary speaker, told a news conference. “(The decision) will meet our people’s expectation for trust and stability.”

His party has submitted a proposal to parliament for the general election to be brought forward to June 24 from Nov. 4. The AK Party is expected to win a second term after five years of strong economic growth since it came to power in 2002.

The AK Party will also propose the president is in future elected by voters and not by lawmakers, Erdogan said.

Relief for financial markets
A threat by the army, which regards itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular system, to intervene in the presidential poll, an opposition boycott of the first round vote in parliament and a anti-government rally of up to one million people on Sunday sharply increased tensions in Turkey.

The decision to move the election to June could provide relief for financial markets which suffered their biggest fall in a year over the last two days on fears of instability.

Turkish shares and the lira rose roughly two percent on Wednesday but analysts said investors should remain cautious.

“Political uncertainty tops the agenda: both the early elections and the presidential elections. The market will remain cautious because the problems are still on the table,” said Umit Sener, portfolio manager at Yatirim Finansman in Istanbul.

The political impasse has also raised concerns about Turkey’s negotiations to join the European Union.

Secularists win?
The opposition boycotted last week’s presidential vote and said there were not enough deputies in parliament to make the vote valid. Gul is the only presidential candidate.

Erdogan’s government vowed to press on with the presidential vote after the Constitutional Court annulled the first round on Tuesday. The vote is not expected to produce a concrete result given the opposition’s continued boycott.

“The Constitutional Court decision is a bullet aimed at democracy,” Erdogan told a televised gathering of his party. The court has been accused of siding with the secularist elite.

The presidential post carries great symbolic weight in Turkey because it was first held by the revered founder of the modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The president also has veto and appointment powers and is head of the army.

Secularists, including powerful army generals and judges, fear that once the AK Party secures control of the presidency — the last key state institution it does not hold—it will chip away at the secular principles of the republic.

The AK Party reject the allegation and point to their pro-Western record in office. “We are not a religion-centered party,” Erdogan said.

'Damage is already done'
Last week the army issued a statement reminding politicians that the military was the ultimate guardian of secularism and saying it was watching the presidential election with concern.

The army has ousted four governments since 1960, the last in 1997 when it acted against a cabinet in which Gul served.

The crisis stems from a failure to bridge a divide between people who want Turkey to keep a strict separation of state and mosque, and a growing class of more religiously-minded Turks who have prospered under the AK Party and want a relaxation of strict curbs on religious symbols and expression.

Analysts say that to win the election, the AK Party will need to gain the upper hand against a opposition revitalized by recent political events.

“The damage is already done, it will now be a period of damage control (for the AK Party) and how to repair it. The fact is the military intervened once again so everyone has lost,” said Cengiz Candar, a veteran Turkish columnist.

Deep divisions
The bitter debate over the role of Islam in politics has exposed deep divisions in Turkey. Pro-secular groups say the ruling party, which came to power in 2002 with 34 percent of the vote, did not have a strong popular mandate even though an electoral quirk gave it 66 percent of the seats in Parliament.

The showdown also has led to fears that the military could intervene and push the elected government out of power.

Those concerns were heightened Friday when the army released a statement saying it was watching the process with concern and reminded Turks that the army was “the absolute defender of secularism” and would act to prove it if necessary.

Asked by reporters about the military statement, Erdogan said Tuesday that such debate should be avoided.

“This would weaken our country’s institutions and would cause the country to lose blood,” Erdogan said. “If the blood loss starts, than its price could be heavy for our nation as it happened in the past.”

In 1997, the military pushed the pro-Islamic prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, out of power, sending tanks into the streets in a message that any concessions on secularism would not be permitted. It staged three other coups between 1960 and 1980.

The founder of modern, secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was an army officer who established the republic in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, giving the vote to women, restricting Islamic dress and replacing the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet. Wearing an Islamic headscarf, as Gul’s wife does, is illegal in government offices and schools.