Turkey's secular, Islamic parties set to clash

The Baltimore Sun

ALANYA, Turkey -- Vacationing just a few miles apart on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, the economist from Istanbul and the engineer from Ankara could hardly have more divergent views of a nationwide vote today that is expected to return the ruling party to power - and intensify a battle over the role of Islam in public life.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, which has roots in political Islam, is "just too Muslim, too radical," said Reha Guner, drinking tea in a cafe just off a crowded beach where European tourists sunbathed topless and beer flowed freely. "They want to hold the country back. That's why these elections are so important."

Down the road, at a resort that caters to religiously observant families, engineer Ahmet Alintuglu said pious Muslims like him often feel marginalized in a republic whose 80-year-old founding principles mandate a strict separation of Islam and government.

"We're a so-called Muslim country, but we are treated like second-class citizens, even when we are on vacation," he said. He complained that his family was forced to pay premium prices to secure the amenities they wanted: gender-segregated swimming pools, modest dress in public areas and a ban on alcohol.

While parting ways at the ballot box, Guner and Alintuglu had this much in common: Like tens of thousands of Turks, each was cutting vacation time short to vote in the parliamentary elections, which are shaping up as among the country's most divisive in recent memory.

The Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is expected to garner the largest share of seats - but not enough to render it immune to challenges by secular-minded opposition.

That could set the stage for months of fresh political warfare over Parliament's election of the country's president. The AKP is determined to claim the post, although it has always been held by a resolute secularist.

In April, the AKP put forth as its presidential candidate Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, an English-speaking diplomat whose wife wears the headscarf that connotes a devout Muslim woman.

For secularists, the notion of such a first lady proved a psychological tripwire. Huge protest rallies were held, the military threatened to step in to preserve secular principles, and the Constitutional Court, citing a technicality, threw out a parliamentary vote that favored Gul.

The standoff left both sides furious, with AKP supporters accusing the secular establishment of acting undemocratically and secular parties insisting that the AKP, despite a track record focused on successfully fostering economic growth, had revealed its hidden Islamist agenda.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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