Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he would address the country Monday amid a crisis over a presidential election that has pitted secularists, including the army, against his Islamist-rooted government.
Turkey’s financial markets tumbled as investors took fright at instability sparked by a court challenge to the presidential election process, a mass anti-government rally involving up to one million people and the specter of an army intervention.
But Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, buoyed by strong economic growth and the support of the European Union it aims to join, has shown unprecedented defiance of the powerful military, which only 10 years ago ousted a cabinet it saw as too Islamist.
AK Party’s presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, architect of Turkey’s EU bid, has refused to stand aside.
Parliament, where the AK Party has a big majority, elects the president in Turkey.
Secularists suspect Erdogan and Gul, both ex-Islamists whose wives wears the Muslim headscarf banned from state institutions, of wanting to subvert Turkey’s strict separation of state and religion. Erdogan and Gul reject the claim and point to their pro-Western record in office.
Turkey’s Constitutional Court began on Monday to examine an opposition request to suspend the presidential election, a move which would trigger early parliamentary polls and, in the view of many analysts, would help defuse tensions.
The court has said it will try to issue its verdict by Wednesday, when parliament is due to hold a second round of voting on Gul’s candidacy. Gul is not expected to win the presidency until the third round on May 9.
The leader of Turkey’s staunchly secularist main opposition CHP, Deniz Baykal, called on Monday for an anti-government alliance among all opposition parties and accused the AK Party of riding roughshod over people’s concerns about secularism.
“The forces who want to protect the republic should unite,” Baykal told a news conference.
But in a further sign of government resolve, the powerful speaker of parliament, AK Party member Bulent Arinc, said the presidential election process would be completed successfully.
The lira currency lost more than two percent and Turkish shares plunged six percent on the political uncertainty.
An Islamic state?
On Sunday, as many as one million people attended an anti-government rally in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and business hub. Many protesters accused the government of planning an Islamist state and criticized it for failing to consult the opposition over the choice of president, who carries great symbolic weight and has important veto and appointment powers.
Erdogan’s office said he would deliver his address to the nation at 8:15 p.m. local time Monday. He makes regular television statements to highlight his government’s successes, but is expected this time to focus on the crisis.
The AK Party, a center-right movement formed out of a banned Islamist party, has a large following among religious Turks but also the backing of moderate Turks for pushing economic reforms designed to bring the country into the European Union. It swept to power in 2002, months after its creation, on an anti-corruption platform.
Its foes say it is stealthily promoting religious-minded officials in the state bureaucracy and plans to relax a strict ban on the headscarf in universities and public offices. The election of an AK Party president would remove the last major political check on the power of the government.
Deputy Prime Minister Abdullatif Sener said Monday the government’s main priority now was macroeconomic stability. He said the AK Party had not yet made a decision on whether to call an early parliamentary election.
The armed forces have removed four governments from power since 1960, two by outright coups and two more by “soft coups,” rallying pressure to force leaders to step down. But the generals’ formal state powers have been greatly reduced under reforms introduced by AK in pursuit of EU membership.
Turkey’s business elite has welcomed AK Party policies that have slashed inflation and revived the country’s economy after years of deep crisis. But it now wants early general elections.
Erdogan, however, will want to avoid giving any impression his government has buckled under army and opposition pressure.