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Secular Turks rally to send a message to prime minister

A possible presidential bid by an Islamist party leader stirs opposition. `We don't want to become Iran,' one says.

April 15, 2007|Yesim Borg and Laura King | Special to The Times

ANKARA, TURKEY — More than a quarter of a million people rallied Saturday in the Turkish capital to voice secularists' opposition to a run for the presidency by the country's prime minister, who is affiliated with an Islamist party.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to announce soon, perhaps this week, whether he will be his party's presidential nominee.

Lawmakers are to elect a president next month, and because Erdogan's party has a substantial parliamentary majority, announcing his candidacy would be tantamount to claiming the post.

The rally Saturday was organized by Turkey's secular establishment, and followers were bused in from around the country. By the standards of political protests here it was large, but probably not large enough to deter Erdogan if he has decided to seek the presidency.

Still, the protest was a determined show of symbolic force by the secularist camp.

"Turkey is secular and will stay that way!" marchers chanted. Many held banners bearing pictures of the republic's revered founding father, Kemal Ataturk, who decreed a strict separation of religion and state. The marchers' route took them near Ataturk's mausoleum.

Ece and Muge Kaplan, sisters in their 20s, carried a huge Turkish flag as they marched.

"We don't want to lose secularism. He's going to destroy the secular regime," Muge Kaplan said of Erdogan. "We don't want to become Iran."

Her sister chimed in: "We believe in Islam; we are Muslims. But we don't want it to become our whole way of life."

Although Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has Islamist roots, the prime minister has allied with secularists on some crucial domestic issues, such as the bid for membership in the European Union.

But he also has stoked secular anxieties with moves such as urging that the ban be lifted on wearing Islamic-style head scarves in schools and government offices.

He has been a popular prime minister, credited with helping generate strong economic growth during his four-year tenure. However, the notion of him as head of state makes secularists queasy, particularly because Erdogan's party has spoken openly of taking steps to strengthen the power of the executive branch.

Turkey's powerful military, which considers itself the guardian of the secular system, has already weighed in. In a clear swipe at Erdogan, the army chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, said Thursday that the military hoped someone "loyal to the principles of the republic" would be elected.

In a statement also widely interpreted as being aimed at Erdogan, the outgoing president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, said Friday that "the pillars of the secular republic" were in the greatest danger since its founding in 1923.

Although mostly a ceremonial post, the president has the power to veto laws if he holds them to be in violation of the country's secular constitution. Sezer, a former constitutional judge, did so many times during his years in office.

The rally, which shut down much of the capital, was watched over by a contingent of 10,000 police officers, but the protest was peaceful.

Farmer Bulent Korucu, who took an hours-long bus ride to participate in the rally, said he hoped the size of the march would give Erdogan pause.

"If he has any common sense, he will look at the people saying no for the first time to a presidential candidate," he said. "We are defending our republic against religious fundamentalists."

king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Borg reported from Ankara and Times staff writer King from Istanbul.

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