More than one million people took part in a mass rally in Istanbul Sunday in support of secularism and democracy amid a tense stand-off between the Islamist-rooted government and the army over presidential elections.
The crowd, carrying red-and-white Turkish flags and portraits of founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, filled Istanbul's sprawling Caglayan square in a demonstration organized by some 600 non-governmental organizations.
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," "Neither Sharia, nor coup d'etat, democratic Turkey," they chanted.
Police at the scene told reporters that the number of demonstrators was well over one million. Organizers said the rally drew people from all over Turkey and abroad.
The Istanbul demonstration followed a similar one in Ankara on April 14 that attracted up to 1.5 million people, according to some estimates.
Tensions rose after Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a former Islamist from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), narrowly missed becoming the country's next president in a first round of voting in parliament on Friday.
The AKP dominates the 550-seat parliament, but does not have the required two-thirds majority to get Gul elected in the first two rounds of voting.
The opposition boycotted the vote because of Gul's Islamist past and because they were not consulted on his candiacy for the non-partisan post.
Army statements cause concerns
The army, which has carried out three coups in the past, issued a statement saying it was determined to protect Turkey's secular system and was ready to take action if the need arose, making it clear, according to many analysts, that Gul's candidacy was not welcome.
The government responded by calling the army to order and Gul on Sunday ruled out withdrawing his presidential bid. "It is out of the question for me to withdraw my candidacy in any way," he told reporters in Ankara.
The prospect of Gul becoming head of state has alarmed secularists who fear the strict separation of state and religion will be eroded and Islam will creep into all fields of life if he is elected.
Court to decide on next round of voting
The main opposition Republican People's Party has asked the Constitutional Court to cancel Friday's presidential vote in parliament, arguing that the assembly did not have the necessary quorum to open the voting session.
If the court annuls the vote, general elections set for November 4 could be brought forward. If does not, Gul could be elected president in a third round of voting on May 9, when an absolute majority of 276 votes would suffice, compared to the two-thirds majority of 367 required for the first two rounds.
"We all need to await the decision of the Constitutional Court," Gul said. "The court will undoubtedly make the best evaluation and reach the right decision."
Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan served in now-defunct Islamist parties before setting up the AKP in 2001. They say they have disawoved their Islamist roots and are now committed to secular principles.
Fear of an Islamist agenda
But secularists suspect the AKP of harbouring a secret Islamic agenda, citing its unsuccessful attempts to criminalise adultery, restrict alcohol sales and lift a ban on Islamic headscarves in government offices.
They fear the government will have a free hand to implement Islamist policies if the party controls the presidency.
The Turkish press on Sunday was unanimous in calling on the government and the army to resolve their differences democratically and said early elections were the only way to prevent the country from plunging into chaos.
"Turkey either giving up on secularism or suspending democracy are two doomsday scenarios impossible to choose between," the popular daily Vatan said.
The liberal daily Milliyet said the army's warning had "cast a shadow on the credibility and respectability of civilian institutions."
"The latest developments show that the current term of parliament has reached the end of its natural life. Elections should be held at once," it added.
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