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Turkish officials criticize military warning

Armed forces voiced concern over election

A pro-Islamic human rights group held signs that said "Nation to the duty" and "Warning to the government is a crime" during a protest yesterday in Istanbul. Officials said military monitoring of the presidential election is unacceptable in a democracy. (Serkan Senturk/Associated Press)

ANKARA, Turkey -- The pro-Islamic government rebuked the military yesterday for threatening to intervene in a disputed presidential election, saying it was "unthinkable" for the institution to challenge the political leadership in a democracy.

The election of a new president by Turkey's 550-seat Parliament has raised tensions between the Islamic-leaning ruling party, which has the candidate favored to win, and the secular opposition, which boycotted a first round of voting Friday.

Although the post is largely ceremonial, the president can veto legislation and the post has been a stronghold for secularists. The prospect of electing a leading member of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has unnerved Turkey's secular establishment.

The ruling party candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, failed to win enough votes Friday for a first-round victory.

Nevertheless, opposition lawmakers asked the Constitutional Court to cancel the vote on the grounds that not enough legislators were present at the time of voting for quorum, and they called for early general elections as the only way out of the impasse. Most opposition legislators boycotted the vote.

The military, which has long guarded Turkey's secular traditions, said after the vote yesterday that 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.

The government's response yesterday was a rare retort against a powerful institution that has intervened before to force out an Islamic leader.

"It is unthinkable for an institution like the military . . . to make any statement against the government on any issue in a democratic state," said Justice Minister Cemil Cicek.

Cicek also said Erdogan had a "fruitful" telephone conversation with the military chief of staff, General Yasar Buyukanit.

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. Secularists are also uncomfortable with the idea of Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, being in the presidential palace because she wears the traditional Muslim head scarf.

Gul has promised to uphold secular traditions, and has been an energetic promoter of Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Turkey is also an important US ally.

But opposition leaders doubt Gul would be a vigorous check on the government led by his party. 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 staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 to restore order and safeguard secular traditions. In 1997, it pressured a premier who was Erdogan's mentor out of power 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 statement on Friday said. "When necessary, they will display their attitudes and actions very clearly. No one should doubt that."

The 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. The EU has been pressing Turkey to curb the influence of its armed forces in politics.

The election "is a clear test case whether the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularization and democratic values," said Olli Rehn, the EU expansion affairs commissioner.

Foreign Minister Carl Bildt of Sweden warned that "in a European constitutional democracy, the military has no role to play in this process."

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 antisecular," Eksi said.

The justice minister said the military statement appeared to be an attempt to influence the Constitutional Court.