ISTANBUL, Turkey — At least 700,000 people marched today in a massive protest against the possible election of an observant Muslim as president, a conflict that is pitting Turkey's religiously oriented ruling party against the deeply secular military and civilian establishment.
Waving the country's red flag and singing nationalist songs, demonstrators in Istanbul demanded the resignation of the pro-Islamic government, calling Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a traitor. Erdogan's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, is widely expected to win the presidential election by the country's 550-seat parliament.
"We don't want a covered woman in Ataturk's presidential palace," protester Ayse Bari, a 67-year-old housewife, said in reference to Gul's wife Hayrunisaah who wears the Muslim headscarf. "We want civilized, modern people there."
The election has reignited a conflict over Turkey's national identity that has brewed since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an army officer in World War I, founded the secular republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He gave the vote to women, restricted Islamic dress and replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet.
But Islam remained potent at the grassroots level, and some leaders with a religious background have portrayed themselves as an alternative to the secular establishment.
Many, including powerful generals, fear Gul would use the presidency — a post with veto power over legislation — to assist his ally, Erdogan, in chipping away at the separation of state and religion. For example, secularists want to preserve a ban on Islamic headscarves in government offices and other public places; Gul's wife once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear the scarf to a university.
The military hinted it may step in to resolve the deadlock over Gul in parliament. And many Turks are calling for early elections in the hope of replacing the parliament, which is dominated by Gul's pro-Islamic ruling party.
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular!" shouted thousands of protesters, many of whom traveled to Istanbul from across the country overnight.
Turkish police estimated their numbers at about 700,000 and cordoned off the protest area, conducting searches at several entry points.
More than 300,000 took part in a similar rally in the capital Ankara two weeks ago.
"This government is the enemy of Ataturk," said 63-year-old Ahmet Yurdakul, a retired government employee among the demonstrators today. "It wants to drag Turkey to the dark ages."
On Friday, Gul failed to win a first round of voting in parliament after opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote. The opposition then appealed to the Constitutional Court to annul the result on grounds that there was not a quorum present at the time of the vote. That night, the military threatened to intervene in the election and warned the government to curb Islamic influences.
"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 said in a statement. "When necessary, they will display its stance and attitudes very clearly. No one should doubt that."
A day later, the government, showing confidence unknown in past civilian administrations, rebuked the military and said it was "unthinkable" for the institution to challenge its political leaders in a democracy.
But Gul was not swayed by the threat.
"It is out of the question to withdraw my candidacy," he said today.
The current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is a strong secularist who acted as a check on the pro-Islamic government.
A decade ago, the Turkish military sent tanks into the streets in a campaign that forced the pro-Islamic prime minister to resign. Now Turks are wondering again how far the armed forces will go to settle another power struggle between their government and the secular establishment.
The military's threat to intervene in a disputed election could also damage Turkey's troubled efforts to join the European Union, which has urged the Muslim nation to reduce the political influence of the army.
"We hope that one day Turkey can join the European Union, but for that, Turkey has to be a real European country, in economic and political terms," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on CNN's Late Edition.
Much has changed since Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan resigned on July 18, 1997, ceding power to a pro-Western coalition partner in what was labeled a "soft" coup. Under the current government, Turkey has reined in inflation and implemented reforms backed by the EU.
These ingredients, signs of a maturing democracy, suggest the military would be very reluctant to topple the elected government of Erdogan, a drastic step that could represent a return to a chaotic, polarized era that most Turks would rather forget. Yet, if it feels pushed, few doubt that the military will challenge the politicians.
The court's ruling on whether a quorum was present at the vote on Friday is expected soon. A ruling for the government could lead to a second round of voting on Wednesday. Gul is the only candidate and is expected to prevail by a third round planned for May 9. A ruling for the opposition would stop the vote, possibly leading to early general elections
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