Turkish Govt Calls Early Election to End Crisis

ANKARA (Reuters) – Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan proposed on Wednesday holding an early parliamentary election on June 24 to end a standoff between his Islamist-rooted government and the secular elite over Turkey’s political direction. Erdogan acted a day after Turkey’s highest court ruled that the first round of the presidential poll was invalid, a defeat for the ruling AK Party that Erdogan labelled "a bullet aimed at democracy." The party’s presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, is a former Islamist. "We made a decision which will end all of the controversies and give the word to the nation. Our dear nation will present its preference of the future," Erdogan said. The AK Party has proposed bringing forward the parliamentary election to June 24 from November 4. Erdogan is expected to win a second term after five years of strong economic growth since his party came to power in 2002. The AK Party will also propose that in future the president be elected by popular vote, not by parliament, Erdogan said. Deniz Baykal, leader of the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said it was too late for this parliament, elected in 2002, to overhaul the constitution. "This is about a fundamental power struggle. Erdogan is saying ‘ok, you’re using everything in order to stop me, then I am going to the public and I will ask them (what they want)’," said Mehmet Ali Birand, a leading Turkish commentator. A threat by the army, which regards itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secular system, to intervene in the presidential poll, an opposition boycott of the first round vote in parliament and an anti-government rally of up to one million people on Sunday sharply increased tension in Turkey. Turkey is a secular and predominantly Muslim country. The decision to move the election to June brought relief to financial markets which had suffered their biggest fall in a year over the previous two days on fears of instability. Turkish shares and the lira recovered somewhat on Wednesday. The European Commission welcomed Erdogan’s proposal for an early poll. Italy said recent events in Turkey showed caution over its admittance to the 27-nation bloc appeared justified. "Turkey must emerge from the crisis by its own efforts and in full respect of democratic principles … but it could emerge with a better democratic framework than before," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told Reuters in a phone interview. The opposition boycotted last week’s presidential vote and said there were not enough deputies in parliament to make the vote valid. Gul is the only presidential candidate. Erdogan’s government vowed to press on with the presidential vote after the Constitutional Court annulled the first round on Tuesday. "The Constitutional Court decision is a bullet aimed at democracy," Erdogan said in televised remarks to his party. The court has been accused of siding with the secularist elite. The next round of voting in the presidential poll will be held on May 6, a senior AK Party member said. But opposition parties have pledged to boycott that vote too. The presidency carries great symbolic weight in Turkey because it was first held by the revered founder of the modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The president also has veto and appointment powers and is head of the army. Secularists, including army generals and judges, fear that once the AK Party controls the presidency–the last key state institution it does not hold–it will chip away at the secular principles of the republic. The AK Party rejects the allegation and points to its pro-Western record in office. "We are not a religion-centered party… We are secularists too," Erdogan said. The army has ousted four governmen’s since 1960, the last in 1997 when it acted against a cabinet in which Gul served. The crisis stems from a failure to bridge a divide between people who want Turkey to keep a strict separation of state and mosque, and a growing class of more religious Turks who have prospered under the AK Party and want a relaxation of strict curbs on religious symbols and expression.

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