ANKARA Turkey headed on Wednesday for early parliamentary elections on July 22 to settle a standoff between the Islamist-rooted government and the secular elite over the country's strict separation of mosque and state.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan proposed the early poll a day after Turkey's highest court ruled that the first round of a presidential election was invalid, a defeat for the ruling AK Party that Erdogan labeled "a bullet aimed at democracy."
The opposition boycotted the first round of the vote in parliament, preventing the required quorum and forcing the country towards early elections. The court ruled that without a quorum the election was invalid.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, an AK party member and the only presidential candidate, is a former Islamist whose wife wears an Islamic headscarf. Opponents fear that Gul as president and Erdogan as prime minister would push Turkey towards an Islamist agenda, something they both deny.
"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.
Parliament's constitutional committee proposed holding the vote on July 22 rather than June 24 as proposed by the AK Party, and CNN Turk quoted Erdogan as saying he had no objection. Parliament's general assembly was expected to approve the date.
The election was originally slated for November 4.
Erdogan and his AK Party are expected to win a second term after five years of strong economic growth since coming to power in 2002.
The party also announced a plan to hold a referendum, perhaps on election day, if it fails to get the opposition's backing to amend the constitution so that the president would be elected by popular vote, not by parliament.
Deniz Baykal, leader of the secularist main opposition Republican People's Party, said it was too late for this parliament 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 the secular system, to intervene in the presidential poll, the opposition boycott of the first round vote and an anti-government rally of up to one million people on Sunday sharply increased tension in Turkey.
The decision to bring forward the election brought relief to financial markets which had suffered their biggest fall in a year over the previous two days on fears of instability.
The European Commission welcomed the planned early election. Italy said recent events in Turkey showed caution was justified over its admittance to the 27-nation European Union.
Turkey, constitutionally secular and its 74 million people predominantly Muslim, began EU membership talks in 2005.
Erdogan, in a largely symbolic gesture, vowed to press on with the presidential vote on May 6 despite the court ruling. The opposition has vowed to boycott the vote again. The court has been accused of siding with the secularist elite.
"The Constitutional Court decision is a bullet aimed at democracy," Erdogan said in televised remarks to his party. He later said his remark was aimed at opposition leader Baykal, who led the boycott that pushed the issue before the court.
The presidency carries symbolic significance 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.
The army has ousted four governments since 1960, the last in 1997 when it acted against a cabinet in which Gul served.
(Additional reporting by Hidir Goktas, Gareth Jones, Daniel Bases in Ankara, Emma Ross-Thomas, Daren Butler in Istanbul)