ANKARA, (Reuters) – Thousands of secularist Turks rallied in Ankara on Saturday against the ruling AK Party, which is facing a high court challenge by a prosecutor who wants it shut down for alleged Islamist activities.
Demonstrators waving red Turkish flags and pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, chanted slogans against the AK Party and the European Union, criticised by many Turks for perceived meddling in Turkey’s domestic politics.
Turkish TV put the numbers at roughly 20,000 people, with many coming from faraway cities.
The Constitutional Court last month agreed to hear the case calling for 71 AK Party officials, including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, to be banned from politics for five years. “It must be closed down, the danger is that great,” protester Aysun Ozarman, 55, said of the AK Party. Ozarman works in tourism and travelled from the southern province of Antalya to attend the protest near Ataturk’s mausoleum.
The case is the latest escalation of tension between the religious-leaning government and a secularist establishment made up of judges, army officers and professors.
It comes soon after the AK Party moved to lift a ban on headscarves in universities, an issue also being challenged in court.
The AK Party, which has presided over strong economic growth and democratic political reforms since sweeping to power in 2002, denies accusations that it has an Islamist agenda.
Officially for “national sovereignty”, the protest came ahead of National Sovereignty and Children’s Day on April 23.
Protesters also objected to the EU and its support for the government. The government is pushing for Turkey to join the bloc, but the EU’s popularity has fallen among the public since the start of accession talks in 2005.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was in Istanbul on Saturday at the end of a three-day trip, during which he urged the Turkish court to apply European standards in the case against the AK Party and called for democratic reforms. “We don’t want the EU interfering,” said Sibel Varol, a 35-year-old housewife who came to protest from Istanbul. “The EU is not our master.”