August 27, 2007 / 3:06 PM / in 10 years

Turkey's army defends secularism ahead of elections

<p>Turkish tanks take part in a military exercise near the southeast Turkish town of Cizre, some 30 miles from Turkey's Habur border gate to Iraq, June 7, 2007. Turkey's powerful armed forces said on Monday efforts were made daily to undermine the country's secular system, comments coming a day before parliament is expected to elect a former Islamist as president.Osman Orsal</p>

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's powerful armed forces said on Monday that efforts were being made every day to undermine the secular republic, strong language a day before parliament is expected to elect a former Islamist as president.

The statement struck an ominous note ahead of Tuesday's presidential vote and suggested the military would not stand on the sidelines if it saw secularism threatened -- though few expected any direct intervention by the armed forces.

"Unfortunately every day in different ways appear furtive plans which aim to undo the modern advances and ruin the Turkish republic's secular and democratic structure," the chief of General Staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, said in a statement marking August 30 Victory Day celebrations.

It was not clear whether the hawkish general's comments, published unusually early for a Victory Day statement, were linked directly linked to the presidential election.

Turkey's military considers itself the ultimate guardian of the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It has ousted four governments in the past 60 years, one as recently as 1997, that it considered too Islamist.

"The Turkish Armed Forces, as up until now, will never sway from its determined stance and its duty of protecting and watching over the democratic, secular ... Turkish Republic," Buyukanit said.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country but has a strictly secular constitution.

After the statement, the lira currency eased 0.5 percent in Tuesday-dated trade to 1.3215 against the dollar from a close on Monday of 1.3150.

Intervention Unlikely

The military and secular elite have opposed the candidacy of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul as head of state because of his Islamist past and the fact his wife wears the Muslim headscarf, seen by secularists as a provocative symbol of religion.

A harsh statement by the armed forces in April helped derail the Islamist-rooted ruling AK Party's first attempt to elect Gul as president, forcing it to call early parliamentary elections.

But few expect the army to intervene directly now, as its strong defense of secularism earlier this year initially sparked mass rallies but later seemed to backfire and help give the AK Party more votes in the July elections.

Leading broadcasters NTV and CNN Turk labeled Monday's armed forces statement "harsh".

"The statement is not good but it is not very serious because the days of coups are gone," said Dogu Ergil of Ankara University. "They can't intervene but they can interfere."

Parliament holds a third round of voting to elect the next president on Tuesday and Gul, a respected diplomat who has pledged to uphold secularism, is expected to win.

The army and secularists will watch his performance closely and note whether his headscarf-wearing wife attends official events like Thursday's Victory Day celebrations. The garment is banned in public offices and universities and not traditionally worn at Cankaya presidential palace receptions.

The standoff between the AK Party and the secular elite is also linked to a power struggle for control of Turkey's bureaucracy, traditionally held by secularists.

"These guys (army generals) are quite frightened, like the civilian secularist elite, they fear losing their leadership positions and privileges," Ergil said.

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