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Secular Turks Stage Mass Anti-Government Rally

Tens of thousands of secular Turks massed in the Aegean port city of Izmir Sunday to protest Turkey's Islamic-rooted government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The rally is the latest in a wave of pro-secular protests ahead of key parliamentary elections scheduled for July 22. From Istanbul, Amberin Zaman has details for VOA.

Singing nationalist anthems and waving Turkish flags, tens of thousands of Turks, many of them women, marched towards Izmir's Republic square Sunday to protest Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Yachts, fishing boats and other vessels flying the Turkish national flag sailed in Izmir harbor in a show of support.

Turkey's pro-secular heart beats strong in Izmir, the only large city that Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has failed to capture in municipal elections.

Animosity to his government was evident in the placards carried by demonstrators. One read "Erdogan is lethal." There were also many anti-American and anti-European Union banners, evidence of mounting anti-Western sentiment that is shared by religious and secular Turks alike.

Mr. Erdogan is a former Islamist, who says he no longer believes in mixing religion with politics. But many pro-secular Turks accuse the prime minister of harboring a secret Islamist agenda. Tensions escalated when Mr. Erdogan nominated his foreign minister Abdullah Gul to replace President Ahmet Necdet Sezer last month.

In a dramatic move, the country's fiercely pro-secular military joined the debate by issuing a statement warning of the threats posed by spreading Islamic militancy. Bowing to a legal challenge from the opposition, Gul withdrew his candidacy and the prime minister called parliamentary elections on July 22, far ahead of their scheduled November 4 date.

Mr. Erdogan inaugurated his electoral campaign with a rally in the Eastern province of Erzurum, which drew tens of thousands of supporters.

The defiant prime minister said the ballot boxes would show who the Turkish people really favored.

Mr. Erdogan accused the opposition of lying to the people, saying that during his 4.5 years in power his government had done nothing to alter Turkey's secular system.

Opinion polls indicate that Mr. Erdogan's party may win 40 percent of the vote, far ahead of its closest rival Deniz Baykal and his pro-secular Republican People's Party, which according to the same survey would get 25 percent of the vote.