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Turkey's highest court annuls presidential vote amid battle over role of Islam in politics

Turkey's highest court annuls presidential vote amid battle over role of Islam in politics

Turkey's highest court on Tuesday annulled parliamentary voting that looked certain to lead to a pious Muslim becoming president, a victory for staunch secularists who fear Turkey is moving toward Islamic rule that would undermine their Western way of life.
The Constitutional Court's ruling increased pressure on the government to call early general elections as a way out of a crisis that has seen the stock market plummet and the pro-secular military threaten to intervene.
"What we need to cast off and get rid of these shadows is early (general) elections as soon as possible," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, the presidential candidate, said hours after the court decision.
But he said he had not withdrawn his candidacy, amid indications that the ruling party was scrambling for a strategy on how to respond to the setback from the court, a strongly secular body.
At the heart of the conflict is a fear that Gul's party would use its control of both Parliament and the presidency to overcome opposition to moving Turkey toward Islamic rule. More than 700,000 pro-secular Turks demonstrated in Istanbul on Sunday, many of them women who believe political Islam would deprive them of personal freedoms and economic opportunities.
Secularists are deeply skeptical of the government despite its stated commitment to secularism, as well as reforms aimed at gaining membership to the European Union, because many ruling party members made their careers in Turkey's Islamist political movement. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once spent several months in jail after reciting an Islamic poem that prosecutors said had incited religious hatred.
The ruling party has also advocated an eventual move toward a U.S.-style presidential system with a more powerful executive, adding to concerns about a president with an Islamist tilt.
Parliament, which since 2002 has been dominated by pro-Islamic politicians from Gul's Justice and Development Party, elects the president in Turkey. In the first two rounds of voting, a candidate needs two-thirds of the lawmakers' votes to win, but by the third he needs only a simple majority.
The Constitutional Court ruled that there were not enough legislators present during the first round of voting on Friday, and canceled the round. The opposition had boycotted the vote, depriving the ruling party of a quorum of two-thirds of lawmakers in the 550-seat Parliament.
"We've canceled the first round," court spokesman Hasim Kilic said. "Whether the Parliament will continue the vote or not, we can't know."
After the decision, there were conflicting reports on whether Gul's party would try again to round up two-thirds of the legislators for a repeat vote on Wednesday. But there were indications that, in any case, Turkey was heading for early general elections to try and end the uncertainty, which has paralyzed the government and sent markets tumbling.
The Turkish stock market continued its slide Tuesday in reaction to the political upheaval, dropping 3.2 percent ahead of the Constitutional Court's decision later in the evening. The index had sunk 6.3 percent on Monday.
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 has also 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.
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 founded 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.
But Islam remains a powerful and attractive alternative for many Turks in this predominantly Muslim nation of more than 70 million.
Many analysts said early general elections would help to restore legitimacy with a new government that would be less polarizing than the current one.
"The only way out of this crisis is early parliamentary elections because it is clear that the current government has lost its legitimacy," Hudson Institute analyst Zeyno Baran said in a presentation to the U.S. Senate. "If Prime Minister Erdogan does not call for early elections... he will be held responsible for leading the country to internal chaos."


Updated : 2021-03-09 16:00 GMT+08:00