IZMIR, Turkey (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Turks took to the streets of Izmir on Sunday, stepping up pressure on the Islamist-rooted government with a rally to demand that their country remain a secular state.
Organisers hoped the protest, which they expected to attract two million people, would unite the opposition ahead of elections in July.
The rally was overshadowed by a bombing on Saturday in the city which killed one man and injured 14. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.
Streets and buildings in Turkey’s third largest city, including army barracks, were covered in a sea of red Turkish flags and portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey.
“Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” protesters, predominantly youths at this rally, chanted. “No to sharia (Islamic law).”
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government has been forced to call a general election months ahead of schedule to defuse a conflict with Turkey’s secularists over a presidential election.
Turkey’s secular elite, including opposition parties, top judges and army generals, successfully blocked Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul’s election. They feared the ex-Islamist might try to undermine Turkey’s separation of state and religion, a claim he and his ruling AK Party strongly deny.
Turkey’s main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the smaller leftist Democratic Left Party (DSP) — which are in talks to form an alliance — hope to use the rally to build momentum ahead of the July 22 election.
“We are here today to show our support for the secular republic and hope the opposition will unite otherwise the AK Party will again control parliament,” said 38-year-old Metin Yilmaz, who works as a truck driver.
The success of the secularist opposition in derailing Erdogan’s plans to have his close ally, Gul, elected president has given opposition parties new confidence, analysts say.
The political crisis has brought about mergers between opposition parties in the hope to pass a 10 percent threshold of votes in July to enter parliament.
“Many young people don’t feel opposition parties represent them. They don’t know who to vote for. That’s the challenge for the opposition,” said Dogu Ergil of Ankara University.
Opinion polls show the centre-right AK Party is likely to win most votes in July but it may fail to win an outright majority, forcing it to form a coalition government.
The AK Party has presided over strong economic growth and the launch of Turkey’s historic European Union entry talks.
But a series of large anti-AK Party rallies over the past month have again brought to the surface the great divide among Turks, who are predominantly Muslim, over the role of religion amid fast economic and social change.
Izmir, a transit point for Turkey’s tourism industry, has traditionally been predominantly secular and pro-western.
It is seen as a key battle ground in elections.
“The AK Party will most likely win the elections but they will have to take into account these demonstrations and what people are saying. They can’t remain arrogant any more,” said Haluk Berk, a doctor who also teaches at an Izmir university.
“The silent majority is finally coming out,” he said.