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Turkey's EU quest under threat amid political crisis

02 May 2007, 22:13 CET

(BRUSSELS) - Turkey's political crisis and the army's role in the presidential election could fuel opposition to Ankara's quest to join the European Union and harm its membership chances, analysts said Wednesday.

They warned that Turkey's image in Europe was being damaged by the standoff pitting the Islamic governing party against the powerful army, the guardian of secularism, but conceded that democracy was not yet in crisis.

This, they said, could change were the army to act to ensure that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, was not elected by parliament.

"For states that are against Turkey's accession to the EU, everything that goes on in Turkey -- whatever it might be -- will be used against it," said Didier Billion, analyst at the IRIS strategy research institute in Paris.

"Hostile forces are going to look at these events under one light: this country is totally unstable and therefore cannot be integrated into the EU," he said.

Independent expert Kirsty Hughes, agreed to a point, saying that most Europeans do not understand Turkish politics and are deeply influenced by media images.

"It certainly damages the opinion of people in Europe," she said.

"It is a complicated situation in Turkey and they don't instantly understand it. When you see people in the street, the army threatening to intervene, early elections, there is obviously some crisis..."

Indeed this crisis, which began in earnest last week, took a new turn Wednesday when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked parliament to set general elections for June 24, almost five months early.

It came a day after the Constitutional Court annulled Friday's first-round presidential vote in the assembly in which Gul, Erdogan's closest aide, was sole candidate.

Within hours of that vote the army issued a statement saying it would be prepared to act to preserve Turkey's secular identity.

By Sunday, more than one million people had rallied in Istanbul in opposition to Gul, once a member of a party outlawed for Islamist activities and whose wife wears the symbolically-charged Islamic headscarf.

Amid much controversy and stern opposition, Turkey was granted EU candidate status in 2005 and its accession process will take at least a decade.

One factor slowing down Ankara's quest has been the military's tendency to intervene in politics -- it has overturned four governments since 1960.

The EU's executive Commission warned Wednesday that "the supremacy of democratic civilian power over the military" is a prerequisite for any country hoping to join.

"What I don't like and what is a problem is the intervention of the army, coming up with a very strong statement, influencing very strongly the constitutional court," said Dutch MEP and Turkey observer Joost Lagendijk.

"We'll never know if the court took a decision on purely legal ground," he said. "There will always be a black spot or a stain on the decision."

"What we need to see is a regular run up to the election in June, that the army stays out of politics," he said.

Billion underlined: "We, the members of the European Union, cannot accept that an army interferes in the political arena."

For the moment, said Katinka Barysch at the Centre for European Reform, that is not the case and the problem remains one that could be sorted out by Turkey's democratic institutions.

"If there is no military coup, if there is only people having a disagreement about who should be president, then there is absolutely no reason for the EU to stop the negotiations," she said.

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