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Turkey's government crisis points to shaky democratic structure

Turkey's government crisis points to shaky democratic structure

Turkey's move to hold early general elections eases a conflict between the Islam-based government and secular forces in the short term, but the crisis over how to deal with political Islam in this Western-looking democracy appears far from resolved.
Turkish society is deeply divided, and secular Turks have resorted to controversial means _ a parliamentary boycott, mass protests and a threat of military intervention _ in an attempt to erode the power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who they fear is trying to drag Turkey toward Islamic rule.
Until recently, Erdogan looked certain to use his majority in Parliament to consolidate his control over the entire executive by installing a close ally, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, in the presidency. But the backlash against the move seems to have caught him by surprise and could lead instead to a dramatic reshuffling of Turkey's government.
It has also intensified a debate on reforming the way Turkey's representative system works.
In response to Erdogan's choice for president, hundreds of thousands of secular Turks protested against the ruling party in Istanbul and Ankara, and the opposition boycotted a parliamentary session and filed a successful appeal to the Constitutional Court to have the first round of voting for president annulled. The pro-secular military threatened to intervene to curb the rise of political Islam.
On Wednesday, Erdogan called the Constitutional Court decision a "bullet fired at democracy," but said he would abide by it and would seek general elections on June 24 for a renewed mandate to rule. He had little choice. The Court's chief justice retorted back Wednesday saying Erdogan's words were "irresponsible."
Looming in the background of Turkey's democratic process is the military. The institution has carried out three coups since 1960 and nudged a pro-Islamic premier out of power in 1997, but is widely respected and traditionally has the final word on how to enforce the separation of religion and state.
"It must not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are a party to this debate and are the absolute defenders of secularism," the military said in a statement released just before midnight on Friday. "When necessary, they will demonstrate their attitudes and behaviors in a clear and open way. Let no one doubt this."
The implicit threat of overthrowing an elected government prompted condemnation from leaders in the European Union, which Turkey wants to join. But many Turks say the role of Turkey's military is poorly understood abroad and that by undermining it, Westerners actually undermine Turkish democracy.
Erdogan's party has raised secularist hackles primarily because it has its roots in Turkey's Islamist political movement, and Erdogan even spent time in jail in 1999 for challenging the secular system. But it rose to power in 2002 on an anti-corruption platform, riding a wave of dissatisfaction with the previous government.
Zeyno Baran, an analyst for the Hudson Institute, said in a presentation to the U.S. Senate that the current crisis illustrated a dangerous tendency by Turks to vote irresponsibly because they relied excessively on the military to "save them" if anything went wrong, and also pointed to fundamental flaws in the Turkish representational system.
A political party must receive at least 10 percent of the vote to enter Parliament in Turkey. But when only two parties did so in the elections of 2002, the remaining seats were distributed proportionally among them, giving Erdogan's party 66 percent of the parliamentary seats despite the fact that it won just 34 percent of the popular vote.
"There is a political representation crisis going on in Turkey," said political analyst Rasit Kaya, from the Middle East Technical University, who estimated that because of the 10 percent threshold, more than half of the Turkish population was left unrepresented.
Increasingly, there are calls to revamp the whole system, and Erdogan has made no secret of his desire to move toward a U.S.-style presidential system with a more powerful executive to avoid the parliamentary infighting that often paralyzes Turkish governments.
On Wednesday, Erdogan's party said it wanted to hold a new presidential vote in Parliament on Sunday, though Erdogan has said that in the long term, he wants to change the Constitution to allow for election of the president by popular vote.
In the meantime, the uncertainty that has roiled markets and frozen government progress on other issues looks likely to continue for a little longer. There were conflicting reports on who would become president when Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a vehemently pro-secular former judge, resigns on May 16.
Bulent Arinc, the ruling party's speaker in Parliament, said he would be acting president, while the opposition said Sezer would remain president until a new one was elected.
For his part, Erdogan has said he is confident that early elections will only increase his Islamic-rooted party's mandate to rule.
"Voting boxes will be set up and our dear people will express their free will," he said an address to his party.
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Associated Press Writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report from Ankara.


Updated : 2021-03-02 07:38 GMT+08:00