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Turkey's Government Presses for Change in Presidential Selection

Turkey's Islamic-rooted government is pushing for a constitutional amendment to allow the president to be elected by popular vote instead of by parliament, following two failed attempts to get its foreign minister selected as president by lawmakers. The presidential succession issue is at the center of a standoff between the ruling party and the secular opposition, which fears Turkey's traditional secularism is in danger. An early general election has been called in an attempt to defuse the political crisis. More from VOA's Bill Rodgers.

The political standoff that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of Istanbul to demonstrate, and even led some to riot and clash with police on May Day, may now be decided in early elections, scheduled for July 22nd. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the elections to defuse tensions following a Constitutional Court decision to annul the first round of a parliamentary vote to select a new president, citing lack of a quorum.

Mr. Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning ruling Justice and Development Party want Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to become president. But Turkey's secularist political establishment opposes this – fearing such a move would lead to a radical Islamist government.

Professor Dennis Sandole monitors Turkish affairs at George Mason University's Conflict Analysis and Resolution Institute. "I think many Turks who are secularists believe that with the progressive radicalization of Islamists, including Turkey, the chances are great that Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Gul, maybe President Gul, might be the tip of the iceberg, might be the Trojan Horse for the further radical Islamization of Turkey," he says.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder and first president, strove to imprint a secularist ideal on his Muslim country. Successive governments have maintained secularism. There are bans, for example, to wearing Islamic headscarves in public offices and schools.

And it is the issue of headscarves, worn by , that has become politically divisive -- and a symbol for the opposition to Gul's possible presidential intentions. Dennis Sandole explains the opposition view.

"If he becomes president, which is a strong position in Turkish politics,” says Sandole, “he will facilitate the further progressive Islamization of Turkish society – and that against the background of what is taking place in the region, which is the further radicalization of Muslims – looks to many secular Turks, who are Muslim in their identity but who don't want to wear headscarves – as a threat."

Turkey's powerful military, which sees itself as the defender of Ataturk's secular legacy, has warned it would intervene if Mr. Erdogan strays too far from secularism. But the military's warning was received negatively by Turkey's allies, including the United States.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey had this to say: "We believe that a free and democratic Turkey in which the Turkish people decide for themselves who their leaders are is critical for that country. It is critical for Europe and it is critical for the world and we will continue to support and call for respect for the constitutional order and democratic process in that country."

For now, Turkey's military – which has overthrown several governments in the past 40 years – appears prepared to stay in the barracks, while ordinary Turks await the next political development.