Around a million people demonstrated on the seafront of Turkey’s third largest city on Sunday in a massive show of opposition strength that heralded a bitter general election campaign.
Official campaigning for the July 22 election has not yet begun. But the rally – one of two at the weekend, one for the government, one against – was an indication of how ready the public is to take to the streets, and how tense the political mood has become, after a clash between the military and the government over the appointment of a new president.
The rally was held in Izmir, a port city on the Aegean and one of the few metropolitan areas in Turkey not controlled by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which has its roots in political Islam. Organisers, mainly the left-wing opposition, said nearly a million people turned out to demand that the country’s secular constitution be protected from a perceived threat from the AKP, which has so far ruled the country without challenging the secularist order.
But the secularist camp in Turkey sees the constitution as coming under threat from the government’s bid to put a senior AKP figure into a post that has always been held by a member of the secularist establishment. Abdullah Gul, the foreign minister and AKP presidential nominee, whose wife wears a headscarf – Islamic headgear which is banned in public offices in Turkey – failed to get confirmed in the post by parliament after the military threatened to block his candidacy.
In a rare departure for Turkey’s civilian politicians, ministers responded by accusing the military high command – which has ousted four elected governments in the past 50 years – of interfering in politics.
The dispute initiated Turkey’s most serious political crisis in a decade and brought forward the election date to July from November. Last week parliament approved an amendment to the constitution that could lead to the direct election of a president, although the measure is expected to be vetoed by the outgoing president and challenged in the courts.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister in the outgoing government, addressed another rally on Saturday in Erzurum, in eastern Turkey. He attacked “those who try to cause confusion and polarisation”, though he did not identify them. He also trumpeted his economic achievements – expected to be the central theme of his campaign – to cheers from thousands of flag-waving supporters.
Security was especially tight in Izmir after a bomb blast on Saturday killed one person. Authorities said the attack may not have been connected to the rally.