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Turkish PM Announces Plan for Early Election

Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has announced that he plans to hold early elections. The announcement came hours after the country's constitutional court annulled the first round of parliamentary voting to elect a new president. The court ruling came amid mounting tensions between Turkey's pro-Islamic government and the country's rigidly secular armed forces. From Ankara, Amberin Zaman has more details for VOA.

Tuesday's ruling came after a first round of balloting Friday to elect the sole candidate to run for the post, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. The incumbent, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is set to step down in May.

The secular opposition party led by Deniz Baykal asked the court to annul the vote on the grounds there were not enough deputies for a quorum during the first round of voting. The court upheld Baykal's view that 367 members of the 550-member parliament needed to be present in order for the balloting to proceed. The opposition boycotted the vote, leaving only 361 lawmakers present at the session.

Friday's parliamentary vote was followed by a dramatic warning later that day from Turkey's powerful armed forces detailing the dangers posed by radical Islam. In a statement posted on its official website, the General Staff, declared that "it should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces is one of the parties to this [secular versus Islamists] debate and is the absolute defender of secularism." The army added that it reserved the right to "take action" as warranted.

The warning sent shockwaves through the political establishment with some analysts calling the generals' words a threat to seize power.

Western diplomats say the military's declaration has dealt a blow to Turkey's efforts to join the European Union and could unravel more than four years of economic growth and political stability under the country's pro-Islamic government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan sought to defend his government's record on Monday in a televised address to the nation.

"At this point, it's enough that we protect the environment of stability, it's enough that we protect the environment of peace," said Erdogan. "Enough that we don't harm the environment of confidence we have worked so hard to attain."

The Turkish military, which views itself as the custodian of the country's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's legacy - a role that is enshrined in the constitution - has overthrown four governments since 1960. The generals' persistent intervention in politics is viewed as one of the foremost hurdles to Turkey's efforts to join the EU.

Mr. Erdogan, whose party commands a comfortable majority in the parliament, is widely thought to have been seeking the presidency for himself. But sustained secular opposition and a wave of huge pro-secular protests forced him to shelve his presidential dreams and nominate his robustly pro-Western foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, for the top post.

But the military remains unswayed, not least because Gul's wife wears the Islamic headscarf which is banned as a symbol of Islamic militancy in the parliament, government offices, schools and universities. Should Gul be elected, his wife would be the first presidential spouse to cover her head.

Most analysts predict that the government will win any early general election.

Opinion polls show Erdogan's party continues to maintain a comfortable lead over its pro-secular rivals.