Turkey: Hundreds of thousands of Turks demonstrated on Sunday in defense of secularism

As many as one million people rallied in a sea of red Turkish flags in Istanbul yesterday, accusing the government of planning an Islamist state and demanding it withdraw its presidential candidate.
Despite the protests and a threat from the powerful army to intervene in the election, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, architect of Turkey’s EU membership drive, said he would remain the ruling A K Party’s candidate for head of state.
The protesters flooded the streets of Turkey’s largest city, praising the army and denouncing Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK Party enjoys a huge parliamentary majority, as a threat to a secular order separating state and religion.

“Turkey is secular and will remain secular”, and “shoulder to shoulder against Shariah,” they chanted carrying portraits of the nation’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The AK Party faces its biggest crisis since it was elected in 2002. Parliament picks the president, who carries great symbolic weight and has important veto and appointment powers.

“We are here to stop the creation of an Islamic state,” said businessman Irfan Kadim, 35. “We fear for the secular republic.”

Many secularists are worried by Gul’s Islamist past and the fact his wife wears the Muslim headscarf, banned in universities and public offices. They fear she will wear it as a first lady.

The AK Party, which has vigorously pressed liberal reforms and overseen strong economic growth, denies any Islamist agenda.

Police said more than 750,000 attended, while CNN Turk said the district town hall put attendance at 1.2 million. Many analysts say the only way to defuse the crisis would be to call early general elections, scheduled for November.

Turkey’s top business association, TUSIAD, backed a call for early elections, which opinion polls showed the AK Party would be well placed to win. Secularists hope a newly elected parliament would choose a consensus president.

“Gul’s candidacy is in jeopardy. I have serious doubt he can continue as if nothing has happened,” Turkish commentator Cengiz Aktar told Al Jazeera television.

30 April 2007