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Approximately 700,000 secular Turks were protesting in Istanbul, Sunday, against the government's decision to appoint a Muslim-leaning candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, for the presidency.
Elsewhere, the Turkish military threatened to repeat what it did a decade ago, when it sent tanks into the streets in a pressure campaign that forced the pro-Islamic prime minister to resign.
Now Turks are wondering again how far the armed forces will go to to defend secular ideals in another power struggle between their government and the secular establishment.
The military's threat to intervene in a disputed presidential election could also disrupt Turkey's troubled efforts to join the European Union, which has urged the Muslim nation to reduce the political influence of the army brass.
Even so, 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 reined in inflation, implemented reforms backed by the EU. The military, which led three other coups between 1960 and 1980, kept a low profile.
These ingredients, signs of a maturing democracy, suggest the military would be very reluctant to topple the elected government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip 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.
"Neither Sharia, nor coup, but fully democratic Turkey," read a banner at a pro-secular rally on Sunday.
The slogan simplifies the debate - Erdogan is a moderate who says he has no intention of imposing Islamic law - but it points to institutional weakness and confusion over who is deciding what constitutes democracy in Turkey, which is a member of NATO. Is it the judges, the ruling party, the opposition or the military?
The heart of the problem is 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.
The conflict burst wide open again last week, with the presidential election serving as a flashpoint for the frustration of secularists with what they view as a government willing to let Islam influence the workings of the state, including the education system.
The crisis unfolded Friday when opposition lawmakers boycotted the first round of parlilamentary voting for the presidential candidate, Gul, and appealed to the Constitutional Court to annul the process. That night, in an ominous reminder of 1997, the military threatened to intervene in the presidential 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," said the military, an object of respect for many Turks. "When necessary, they will display its stance and attitudes very clearly. No one should doubt that."
A day later, the government showed confidence not seen in past civilian administrations, rebuking the military and saying it was "unthinkable" for the institution to challenge its political leaders in a democracy.
"It is out of the question to withdraw my candidacy," Gul said Sunday. "The Constitutional Court will make the right decision."
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.
Many analysts doubt the opposition's claim that a quorum was not present, but analysis of the Constitution has been largely eclipsed by emotion on both sides of the debate. The court is a strongly secular body.
On Sunday, police said hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators gathered in Istanbul in a sequel to a huge pro-secular rally on April 14 in Ankara, the capital.
The protesters fear that Gul, a candidate from a ruling party with Islamic roots, would use the presidency - a post with power to veto legislation - to assist the prime minister 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, Hayrunisa, once appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for the right to wear the scarf to a university.
The current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is a strong secularist who acted as a check on the government.
Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, has strong support among the rural poor and urban migrants in the nation of more than 70 million. His Justice and Development Party, a moderate successor to the banned party of the prime minister who was ousted in 1997, has 353 seats in the 550-seat Parliament.
The ruling party won only one-third of the votes in 2002, but won nearly two-thirds of the seats because of a law that requires parties to have at least 10 percent of the vote in order to win representation in Parliament.
"The real problem lies in the political system, which requires a major overhaul," said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Economic Policy Research Institute in Ankara. "There is no proportionate representation and the standard of democracy is low."
Any adjustments to the political system in Turkey would require amendments to a constitution that was ratified under military rule in 1982. In the short term, the European Union has urged the Turkish military to stay out of the presidential election. It's a familiar appeal.
"The armed forces continue to exercise significant political influence," the European Commission said in a 2005 report on Turkey's EU bid. "Statements by the military should only concern military, defense and security matters and should only be made under the authority of the government."
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