Torn between Democracy, the Military and Islam ; LEADING ARTICLE ++ TURKEY

Article excerpt

Incredible though it seems, a country that is currently negotiating full membership of the European Union may be teetering on the brink of a military coup. The political and economic meltdown in Turkey over the election of a new president has brought the generals out of the shadows and the voters on to the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

The crisis began on Friday when Abdullah Gul, who comes from the Islamic-rooted AK Party, failed to win enough votes in Parliament to take the symbolic post of president, first held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Hours later the army high command made clear their opposition to Mr Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf - one of the touchstone issues of Turkish politics. This is Turkey's biggest showdown between Islam and secularism in recent years; a country that aspires to be the bridge between Europe and the Muslim world is at a critical juncture.

In Turkey, it is important to appreciate, the army sees itself as one of the main guardians of the secular state. In the current context, the generals style themselves as protectors of liberalism against those who wish to make Turkey a more Islamic and less tolerant society. Over the past 50 years the military has mounted three coups and helped to oust an Islamist government in 1997. This time, though, their reaction took many by surprise.

The nomination of Mr Gul for the presidency had been widely seen as a conciliatory sign because it averted the likelihood of the job going to the more divisive Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So why has his candidature provoked such a crisis? One reason is the alarm among the secularists about the political programme of the AK Party and its growing power. Mr Erdogan pressed, unsuccessfully, for the crimi-nalisation of adultery (backing down only under acute pressure for the EU) and his party has campaigned to restrict alcohol sales. …