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Turkey sets July 22 election to unlock crisis

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s parliament on Thursday brought forward general elections to July 22 to try to end a standoff between secularists and ex-Islamists that has exposed deep political faultlines in the EU candidate nation.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (L) reads the constitution with his deputy State Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin (R) during a debate in the Turkish parliament in Ankara May 3, 2007. Turkey's parliament on Thursday confirmed July 22 as the date for national elections in a move aimed at ending weeks of political crisis. Erdogan proposed early elections after Turkey's top court ruled invalid the first round of a presidential election in parliament. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Parliament hopes staging the poll four months earlier than planned will defuse a row between the ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party and the secular establishment, including the powerful army, over a presidential election now likely to be postponed.

Members of parliament unanimously backed the date, despite earlier calls from the main opposition party not to hold the election in July when many voters will be on holiday.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan proposed early elections after Turkey’s top court on Tuesday ruled invalid last week’s first round of the presidential election in parliament.

The AK Party has championed economic and social reforms, wooed foreign investors and improved Turkey’s poor human rights record. The secularist opposition has resisted Erdogan’s pro-market agenda and human rights reforms.

Secularists want to stop Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, the AK Party’s presidential candidate, becoming head of state. They fear he and Erdogan, both ex-Islamists, plan to chip away at Turkey’s separation of state and religion, a claim they deny.

The European Union, which opened entry talks with Ankara in 2005, hailed Thursday’s poll decision. It has been especially worried by a terse statement last week from the military threatening to intervene in the presidential election.

“I think this is a crucial moment for Turkey because what we want to see is civilian power to have priority over military power,” EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on Thursday during a visit to Portugal.

“This is now a moment where I think things will be defined.”

RARE GOOD NEWS

In some rare good news for Erdogan on Thursday, a small centre-right party, ANAP, agreed to back a package of sweeping constitutional reforms drawn up by the AK Party that include having the president elected by the people, not by parliament.

The support of ANAP’s 20 deputies should allow the package to clear a threshold of two thirds, or 367 members of parliament required to change the constitution.

Erdogan hopes to bypass the secularist opposition in parliament, the courts and the army with his plan. Newspapers suggest many Turks favor direct presidential elections.

But legal experts question whether such radical reforms can be approved by a parliament now gearing up for elections.

Turkey’s financial markets and business elite have welcomed the early general election move. The lira firmed against the dollar and Istanbul’s stock market also rose on Thursday.

The AK Party is widely expected to win the general election.

But many urban middle class Turks share the secular elite’s distrust of the AK Party’s pious, mosque-going leaders and their headscarf-wearing wives. They point to its thwarted efforts to ban adultery, to curb alcohol consumption and make it easier for graduates of religious vocational schools to attend university.

The secularist opposition, though more Western in its culture and tastes, is still wedded to a belief in state control of the economy and is suspicious of the EU. It has resisted Erdogan’s pro-market agenda and human rights reforms.

Despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling, Erdogan has vowed to press ahead with the presidential vote in parliament for now, although he is unlikely to secure the attendance of the 367 lawmakers required to make the vote valid.

Analysts say the decision is a face-saving gesture designed to show voters the government has done all it can legally to have its man elected. A fresh round of the presidential election will take place in parliament on Sunday.

Under the constitution, outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist and former head of the Constitutional Court, stays on as interim head of state until a new parliament can elect his successor.

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