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Islamist Gul Tests Turkey's Secular Conventions


Today, Turkey's parliament is debating whether to hold early general elections. The prime minister wants elections as soon as next month. This is an effort to resolve an impasse over who can stand for president of Turkey, and that in turn is part of a debate over religion in a very secular state.

The prime minister's pro-Islamist party had chosen a presidential candidate with strong Islamist credentials, but secularists were opposed. And yesterday, Turkey's highest court ruled against that candidate.

To sort this all out, we turn to our correspondent in Istanbul, Ivan Watson.

And Ivan, what led to this turmoil in the first place?

IVAN WATSON: Steve, basically, it revolves around fear from some Turks that the prime minister - Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his pro-Islamic AKP Party - would get too much power concentrated into their hands. They already controlled the parliament and the prime ministry, and they looked poised to capture the presidency, which is a largely symbolic but important position.

And staunchly secularist Turks fear that this would allow these observant Muslim politicians to try to change the secular system of government in this majority Muslim country. So you saw pressure build not only from opposition lawmakers and parliament, but also from the military and then from a number of huge street demonstrations during which hundreds of thousands of Turks declared that Turkey is secular and it will remain secular. And they denounced Erdogan's candidate for president.

INSKEEP: Is there any concern about the stability of this really important U.S. ally?

WATSON: Absolutely. Turkey's long been considered one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. It's a NATO member country that cooperates militarily and on intelligence fronts and diplomatically with the U.S. and Europe. But the political climate here has already been tense for some time. You've had a rise in nationalism, several high-profile murders of Christians and leaders of ethnic minorities. And just last month, you had the military calling for combat operations across the border into Northern Iraq to battle Kurdish separatist rebels there.

So there have been concerns that - about stability here. Just yesterday, here in Istanbul, there were street battles between riot police and leftists. You had tear gas and helicopters and armored personnel carriers in posh neighborhoods of Turkey's biggest city.

INSKEEP: So we've had this turmoil, there was an effort to elect their president, it's been thrown out, one of the candidates has been ruled against. And now the ruling party, which is led by a pro-Islamist lawmaker, wants to hold elections. Is this party likely would just win?

WATSON: Well, that's the irony here, is that Erdogan is still the most popular politician in the country. During his four and a half years as prime minister, the economy has been booming. Meanwhile, the secular opposition parties are weak and splintered. So he stands to possibly win big again if they hold snap general elections. The wild card here might be ultranationalist parties.

I mentioned earlier the rise in nationalism here. And there's some concerns that these parties might also do quite well.

INSKEEP: But Erdogan is likely to win an election even though he's one of the people that - people out in the streets protesting against.

WATSON: He still has broad support, especially among the working class and in the provinces where Turks tend to be more devout, more religious. And they see Erdogan as an honest man who has done good for the country, versus the traditional secular elites which has dominated the political scene here for the entire history of the modern Turkish Republic.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Ivan Watson in Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ivan Watson
Ivan Watson is currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, he has served as one of NPR's foreign "firemen," shuttling to and from hotspots around the Middle East and Central Asia.