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Turkey: Court invalidates presidential election

Turkey's Constitutional Court, in a decision with potentially profound repercussions for domestic tranquility, as well as the country's European Union bid, has invalidated the country's presidential election.

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During a brief evening news conference in Ankara on 1 May, Constitutional Court spokesman Hasim Kilic announced that the judges had ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the secular opposition People's Republican Party (CHP), which argued that a lack of a quorum in parliament during the first round of presidential voting on 27 April rendered the election invalid.

The CHP's boycott and lawsuit sparked Turkey's most serious political crisis in a decade. Later on 27 April, the Turkish military raised the stakes in the crisis, issuing a statement cautioning the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has moderate Islamist roots, against trying to alter the country's secular tradition. Two days later, up to a million Turks turned out for a mass rally in Istanbul in support of secularism.

The court ruling was met with applause at CHP headquarters. On 30 April, the day before the court's ruling, CHP head Deniz Baykal warned that "Turkey could be dragged into open conflict" if the judges failed to block the vote.

Some analysts said the court's ruling should not have come as a surprise. "From the moment the military made its opinion clear, it was clear what the result would be", said Cengiz Candar, a political columnist for business daily Referans. Seven out of the Constitutional Court's 11 judges, he added, were appointed by incumbent President Ahmed Necdet Sezer, a well-known secularist hardliner. The two judges who dissented from the majority were not Sezer appointees.

A spokesman for the AKP, Cemil Cicek, struck a bold note, saying that his party would attend a parliamentary session on 2 May, aiming to hold the second round of presidential voting, in which the AKP's candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, is running uncontested. Gul would need to receive the support of 367 MPs, or a two-thirds majority, to be elected. "Tomorrow, the vote will go ahead," Cicek said. "Who knows? Maybe some who boycotted the last round will turn out tomorrow."

Given the weekend demonstration of strength by supporters of secularism, few analysts expected that the AKP will be able to muster a parliamentary quorum on 2 May. "Practically, [the Constitutional Court's] decision means that the likelihood of this parliament selecting a president is almost zero," said Murat Yetkin, Ankara bureau chief for the daily Radikal.

That's a huge victory for the segment of the Turkish citizenry that is skeptical of the AKP's desire to uphold the strict separation between religion and state. For many secularists, the simple fact the wife of the government's candidate wears a headscarf is proof enough he seeks to promote an Islamist government.

Some constitutional experts considered the ruling to be blatantly politicized, and, therefore, harmful to Turkey's democratic development. Ergun Ozbudun said the decision was "not just unconstitutional" but - by giving a minority the power to nullify ballots - made it all but impossible for future parliaments to elect a president. "It's a historical decision, in the negative sense," Ozbudun said in comments broadcast by CNN-Turk television.

The court decision seemed destined to do serious damage to Turkey's European Union accession bid. In the hours before the court announced its verdict, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement that criticized the military's meddling, and called on "all those engaged the political process to do so in accordance with Turkey's well established democratic principle and in compliance with the Constitution." Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, voiced outrage over the recent turn of events. "In a democracy, the military are under the command of democratically elected state authorities. The armed forces do not have any democratic legitimacy of their own, and therefore cannot have a political role," said Davis, in comments distributed 1 May by the Abhaber.com news website.

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