Atul Aneja

Row over Erdogan's choice

DUBAI: The tussle between Turkey's military-backed secular supporters and backers of the ruling party which has Islamist roots has intensified.

On Sunday, nearly 3,00,000 Turks marched in Istanbul in defence of Turkey's secular identity. The demonstration took place after the Government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fielded Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul for the presidency.

Islamist roots

Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul belong to the ruling AK party which has Islamist roots. Sunday's "Republican Meeting," organised by several non-governmental organisations, was held at Istanbul's Caglayan Square. "Turkey is secular and will remain secular," the demonstrators chanted. Some of them waved flags and lofted pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. Many sang nationalist songs and called for the Government's resignation.

These protests follow a public spat between Turkey's military establishment and the Government over Mr. Gul's nomination.

On Friday, the Turkish military command issued a statement stating that it was concerned about the party's choice of the presidential candidate. The statement has raised the political temperature in Turkey, where the military, in the past 60 years, has effected three coups. The armed forces had toppled governments in 1960, 1971 and 1980.

In 1997, the first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, was forced out of power following the military's intervention. Mr. Erdogan's AK party traces its origins to Mr. Erbakan's Welfare Party, which was banned in 1998.

In a spirited response, AK spokesman Cemil Cicek said the military's intervention was "inconceivable in a democratic state". "The chief of the general staff is answerable to the Prime Minister." Notwithstanding his Islamist antecedents, Mr. Gul has stressed that he stood committed to Turkey's secular principles. "The President must be loyal to secular principles. If I am elected, I will act accordingly," he said after his nomination for the presidency.

Headscarf

Mr. Gul's wife wears a headscarf, and in Turkey, the wearing of a headscarf is a deeply divisive issue. Analysts point out that the prospects of the first lady sporting this attire if Mr. Gul takes over the presidency, has triggered an acrimonious debate.