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Turkey's pro-Islamic government criticizes military in dispute over presidential election

The pro-Islamic government rejected a stern warning from the military over Turkey's disputed presidential election, calling it unacceptable in a democracy.
It was a rare retort against a powerful institution that has long guarded Turkey's secular traditions _ and has intervened before to force out an Islamic leader.
The ruling party candidate failed to win a first-round victory Friday in a parliamentary vote marked by tensions between secularists and the pro-Islamic government. Most opposition legislators boycotted the vote and challenged its validity in the Constitutional Court.
The military said it was gravely concerned and indicated it was willing to become more openly involved in the process _ a statement some interpreted as an ultimatum to the government to rein in officials who promote Islamic initiatives.
"It is unthinkable for an institution like the military ... to make any statement against the government on any issue in a democratic state," Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said Saturday.
The tense election has contributed to a sense of polarization in a country that has enjoyed relative economic and political stability for years and is seeking entry into the European Union.
Although the post is mostly ceremonial, the president can veto legislation and has been a stronghold for secularists worried about the Islamic tilt of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.
In a country founded on secular principles, the ruling party has supported religious schools and tried to lift the ban on Islamic head scarves in public offices.
The government party candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, has promised to uphold secular traditions, and has been an energetic promoter of the EU bid.
But opposition leaders doubt Gul would be a vigorous check on the government. Outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, vetoed a record number of legislative bills and appointments of officials deemed pro-Islamic.
The military commands widespread respect in Turkey and has chafed at what it views as the increasing influence of Islam in government.
"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 European Union, which has been pressing Turkey to curb the influence of its armed forces in politics, said the election was a test for the 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 expansion affairs commissioner for the EU.
Oktay Eksi, a commentator for Hurriyet newspaper, said the military was making 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.
The military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980. In 1997, it pressured a premier who was Erdogan's mentor out of power and warned the government to curb Islamic influences.
Cicek said Friday's military statement appeared to be an attempt to influence the Constitutional Court. However, he said Erdogan had a "useful and fruitful" telephone conversation with the military chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit.
Gul needed a two-thirds majority to win the first round and must meet the same threshold in the second vote. But if the Constitutional Court sides with the ruling party, he is expected to win the May 9 third round when only a simple majority is required.
Opposition lawmakers asked the court to cancel the vote on the grounds that not enough legislators were present for a quorum, and called for early general elections as the only way out of the impasse.