ANKARA Turkey's former army chief has defended a 2007 website intervention on presidential elections, branded an 'e-coup' by critics, as a justified defense of secularism against Islamist incursions.
The comments marked a rare public explanation by a senior military figure of General Staff action in the political realm.
The EU expects Turkey to reduce the influence of its military as part of terms for membership. While reforms by the Islamist-rooted government have cut their formal powers, the 'e-coup' affair confirmed the generals still saw themselves as ultimate guarantors of secularism, using all channels available.
It also drew an unprecedented public rebuke for the military from the government.
"I myself wrote this," General Yasar Buyukanit, who retired in 2008, said late on Thursday in his first public comments on the subject. "It was Friday evening and I personally wrote it. The April 27 (2007) declaration puts emphasis on the Turkish armed forces' sensitivity toward secularism."
Turkey's military was criticized by the government, rights groups and the European Union for the statement posted hours after an inconclusive parliamentary vote on electing ex-Islamist Abdullah Gul as president. The wording suggested the army would not stand on the sidelines if it saw secularism threatened.
The military has frequently intervened in Turkish politics in the past, sometimes by discreet communications to leaders, sometimes by public declarations and, on two occasions since 1960, by outright armed coups. The 'e-coup' acquired distinction as the first time the General Staff had used the internet.
Turkey, predominantly Muslim, has a secular constitution. The military regards itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular principles based on founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Buyukanit's 2007 statement said the military had been watching the election situation with concern and reminded politicians the military was the ultimate guardian of secularism.
Tensions between the ruling AK Party, which has roots in political Islam and was first elected to power in 2002, and the secularist establishment, including army generals, judges and academics, has heightened political tensions in Turkey.
The secularist elite had campaigned hard against the appointment of Gul as president. They said his appointment would undermine the strict separation of state and religion and would allow the AK Party too strong a grip on power.
Gul, who denies harboring any Islamist designs for Turkey, was finally elected president on August 28, 2007 after several attempts and court challenges.
The row moved the government to call an early parliamentary election in July 2007, which produced an overwhelming victory for the AK Party.
COURT RULING VINDICATION
Buyukanit told broadcaster Kanal D in a rare interview that a ruling by Turkey's top court in 2008 to fine the AK Party for anti-secular activities had vindicated the armed forces' position.
"The Constitutional Court's decision justified us. We thought that what we did was the right thing," he said.
Hardline secularists accuse the AK Party of harboring a hidden Islamist agenda by seeking to ease restrictions on religion in public life, such as its failed attempt to ease a ban on Muslim headscarves at universities.
The AK Party, Turkey's most popular party with a strong following in the Anatolian conservative heartland, denies this.
The military has since toned down its public criticism of the AK Party. But tensions remain due to a controversial investigation into a shadowy, right-wing group accused of plotting to overthrow the AK Party government.
Retired generals and active military officers have been charged for alleged links to the alleged organization. The military has denied any links. (Editing by Paul de Bendern and Ralph Boulton)