Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government fired back at the military on Saturday saying an army statement expressing concern over presidential elections was not acceptable in a democracy.
In a statement posted on its Web site late Friday, the powerful pro-secular military said it was monitoring the elections with concern and indicated it was willing to become more openly involved in the process. Analysts said the statement was an ultimatum to the government.
In a rare salvo against the military, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, the government spokesman, said the government said any military warning to the government was “not acceptable in a democratic order.”
“It is unthinkable for an institution like the military, which is attached to the prime minister, to make any statement against the government on any issue,” Cicek said. “According to our Constitution, the military chief of staff is responsible to the prime minister.”
Hours before the military issued the statement, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidential candidate—Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul—failed to win enough votes in a first round of voting in Parliament that has been marked by tensions between Erdogan’s government and the defenders of Turkey’s secular ideals.
Opposition lawmakers appealed the election in the Constitutional Court on the grounds that there were not enough legislators present for a quorum and have called for early elections as the only way out of the impasse.
Cicek said the military statement, which was issued late Friday after the opposition’s appeal, appeared to be an attempt to influence the court.
In an apparent attempt to reduce tensions, the government spokesman also added that Erdogan had a “useful and fruitful” telephone conversation with Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of military staff, but declined to give details.
The military has staged several coups in past decades, and in 1997 led a campaign that pressured an Islamic party—of which Erdogan and Gul were both members—out of government. At the time, the military issued warnings to the government to curb Islamic initiatives, while people took to the streets in protest of the government policies.
The European Union is pressuring Turkey to curb the influence of the military as part of its membership bid and on Saturday, said the election of a new president was a “test case” for the Turkish military’s respect for democracy.
“This is a clear test case whether the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularization and democratic values,” said Olli Rehn, the EU expansion affairs commissioner.
The military, which has declared itself the guardians of Turkey’s secular traditions, remains one of the most trusted institutions.
“It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the sides in this debate and the absolute defender of secularism,” the military statement said. “When necessary, they will display their attitudes and actions very clearly. No one should doubt that.”
The president can veto legislation, and the prospect of electing a leading member of the pro-Islamic government has unnerved Turkey’s secular establishment. Hundreds of thousands of people recently demonstrated for secular ideals in the capital, Ankara, and another large rally was planned in Istanbul on Sunday.
‘A straightforward ultimatum’
Opposition parties have accused the government of raising tensions by insisting on a candidate with an Islamic past and resisting calls for a president acceptable to all. The opposition boycotted Friday’s vote and appealed to the Constitutional Court.
“It is not enough to call it a ‘stern statement,”’ Oktay Eksi, political commentator for Hurriyet newspaper, said of the military statement. “It has to be called a straightforward ultimatum.”
“It expresses concern over the fact that if Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is elected, the presidential palace, which is considered the last bastion of secularism, will be handed over to a person who is anti-secular,” Eksi said.
If the Constitutional Court rules in favor of the ruling party, Gul is likely to win in the third round when only a simple majority is required. He has promised to uphold the country’s secular traditions amid concerns that his victory will strengthen the role of Islam in politics.
President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who steps down on May 16, vigorously used his powers as a check on the government, vetoing a record number of legislative bills and appointments of officials.
The ruling party has supported religious schools and tried to lift the ban on Islamic head scarves in public offices. Secularists are also uncomfortable with the idea of Gul’s wife, Hayrunisa, being in the presidential palace because she wears the traditional Muslim head scarf.
Both Gul and Erdogan, however, reject the Islamic label. The government has shown openness to the West by securing economic stability with help from the International Monetary Fund, and seeking European Union membership.
The military statement listed a series of public events where it said Islam had encroached on secular traditions. It also expressed concern over the brutal slayings of three Christians in the eastern city of Malatya earlier this month. News reports said the suspects were staying at a student residence run by an Islamic foundation.