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Pro-Secular Turks Stage Mass Anti-Islamist Rally


More than 200,000 Turks protested in Turkey's capital Saturday against the country's prime minister, a former Islamist, who is expected to seek the presidency next month. From Istanbul, Amberin Zaman has details for VOA.

Chanting anti-government slogans, the crowds marched on the mausoleum of Ataturk, the pro-secular founder of modern Turkey, in an effort to discourage Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from making a bid for the presidency.

Bussed into to the capital Ankara from the most far flung regions of Turkey, tens of thousands of Turks waving the Turkish flag chanted "Turkey is secular and will remain secular." It was one of the biggest demonstrations in recent years.

Ural Akbulut is the rector of Ankara's pro-secular Middle East Technical University, one of many academic leaders who took part in the rally.

Akbulut says Saturday's turnout proves that Turkey's pro-secular spirit, inspired by Ataturk, remains very much alive.

The rally was organized by retired military officers and pro-secular civil rights groups, which allege that Mr. Erdogan has an Islamist agenda, and should therefore not be allowed to replace Turkey's fiercely pro-secular president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, when he steps down in May.

Mr. Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, founded by former Islamists, has a majority in the Turkish parliament, which is authorized by the constitution to elect the new president. Mr. Erdogan is widely believed to covet the country's top post, although he has yet to publicly declare his intentions.

Erdogan refutes allegations that he and his government are bent on steering Turkey, a key Western ally, toward an Islam-oriented path. Since coming to power more than four years ago, Erdogan's government has overseen a swath of democratic reforms that helped Turkey win a date to open membership talks with the European Union two years ago.

Western diplomats agree that Mr. Erdogan has done nothing substantive to alter Turkey's pro-secular course, though his efforts to outlaw adultery and to forge closer relations with Iran and Syria have provoked some concern.

As president, Mr. Erdogan would be the commander-in-chief of Turkey's rigidly pro secular Armed Forces. He also would have the power to appoint members of the judiciary and university rectors.

With just days left for candidates to submit their names, only one person, a comedian named Metin Uca, has declared his intention to run for president. On Friday, President Sezer waded into the presidential debate saying that Turkey's secular regime faced its gravest danger since the founding of the Republic in 1923. Throughout his seven-year term, Mr. Sezer vetoed legislation and the appointment of scores of senior officials forwarded by Mr. Erdogan, arguing that they posed a threat to secularism.