The tug-o'-war between Turkey's Islamic-shaded government and the country's secularist continued on Sunday with a massive opposition rally in the west-coast city of Izmir. As many as 1.5 million people gathered in an effort to organize Turkey's fragmented secularist parties ahead of July 22 general elections. It may have been the largest show of opposition yet to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.
The rally came one day after a bomb exploded in an Izmir market, killing one person and injuring 14 others. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, but Izmir is a traditional stronghold for secularists who oppose Islamic-rooted parties like Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Three thousand police were on hand to deal with the huge crowd. Many protesters travelled from other parts of Turkey to fill a 2-kilometer (1.25-mile) oceanfront strip. They carried signs against Erdogan, who has raised tension in recent weeks by nominating his foreign minister, Abdullah Gül -- who likewise has roots in Islamic political parties -- for president. There were protests in Istanbul and Ankara before Gül was rejected by a fractious parliament, which according to the Turkish constitution, is responsible for choosing the country's president. But last Thursday the same parliament passed a bill to change the constitution and elect future presidents by popular vote.
Erdogan and his party believe Gül would win a popular election. But Turkey's current president, a secularist named Ahmet Necdet Sezer, can still veto the bill.
Gül's candidacy was opposed not just by secularists in the parliament but by the military, which has been known to remove governments it doesn't like. Veiled threats from generals during Gül's presidential bid inflamed national tensions, and protesters in Izmir carried not just anti-Erdogan banners but also paper hats with slogans: "No to Islamic law, no to military coups: a democratic Turkey."
The rally was a symptom of deep and bitter feeling in Turkey between secularism and political Islam. The Islamic-rooted AKP has tried to ban alcohol in some local districts and its members have opposed long-standing head-scarf bans. But Erdogan's government has also pressed Western-style reforms in Turkey with an eye to European Union membership -- which many secularists oppose. Some protesters on Sunday carried banners denouncing the EU as well as the United States.
"We stopped Abdullah (Gül) on his tracks, we must now stop Erdogan's party in (this summer's) elections," said 23-year-old student Kerim Yilmaz, according to the Associated Press.