Turkey's Islamist-rooted government sharply criticized an army threat to intervene in domestic politics and said on Saturday the military must remain under civilian control.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone with Turkey's top general, Yasar Buyukanit, after Friday's statement in which the military said it was ready to act in defense of secularism, government spokesman Cemil Cicek said.
Cicek said the army statement was aimed against the government and was timed to influence the Constitutional Court which is set to study a legal challenge to the inconclusive first round of a presidential election on Friday. "Turkey's problems will be solved in the framework of the law, there is no other way ... The chief of the General Staff is answerable to the Prime Minister," Cicek told a news conference.
The army, which has ousted four governments in the past 50 years, expressed concern in its statement late on Friday over the election. It said it was ready to act in defense of the secularist system separating religion and politics. Turkey's secular elite, including the generals and top judges, fear Erdogan's ruling AK Party will erode the secular system if it captures the presidency.
Erdogan held emergency talks on Saturday with his candidate, Abdullah Gul, who is Turkey's foreign minister, and other key officials.
Cicek, who is also justice minister, said the government would not allow its foes to whip up tensions between it and the military. He also stressed the government's commitment to the basic values of the constitution, which include secularism. The army statement came hours after Gul failed to win enough votes in parliament in his first bid for the presidency. A second vote is set for next Wednesday.
Secularist opposition parties boycotted Friday's session. One of them has asked the Constitutional Court to annul Friday's vote because there were fewer than two thirds of deputies in the chamber at the time.
The government says the vote was valid. If the court upholds the opposition appeal next week, Erdogan would have to call a snap election. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a staunch secularist, would stay in office until a new parliament could elect his successor.
About 1,000 protesters staged a rally at Ankara University on Saturday against the government. A big secularist rally is also planned in Istanbul on Sunday.
The Ankara-based Human Rights Association said the army statement damaged Turkish democracy. Mehmet Agar, leader of the center-right opposition True Path Party, told reporters: "Turkey's problems must be solved by civilian politics." In Brussels, European Union enlargement chief Olli Rehn expressed concern.
Turkey, under Gul's supervision, began EU membership talks in 2005. "This is a test case if the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularism and the democratic arrangement of civil-military relations," Rehn told reporters.
However, the EU has lost influence in Turkey, where public opinion has turned Eurosceptic amid rows over Cyprus and other issues. Many Turks feel the EU does not want to admit Turkey. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried told Reuters in Brussels that Washington hoped its NATO ally would resolve its difficulties "in a way consistent with their secular democracy and constitutional provisions."
Ten years ago, Turkey's army ousted Islamist premier Necmettin Erbakan's government, in which Gul also served, with strong public backing and without tanks on the streets.
Few are predicting another military coup in Turkey, where economic growth is robust and Erdogan's government popular, but the army statement has raised the stakes in the battle of wills.