Turkey's Unending Political Crisis

ISTANBUL: After months of tension that almost triggered military intervention, Turkey has reached a crossroads. The crisis grows from one pivotal question: Must democracy be secular?

Turkey's military and political old guard claim that the modern system introduced by Kemal Ataturk to replace the Ottoman caliphate almost 75 years ago separates mosque and state. Article 2 of the Constitute declares Turkey's secular identity; Article 4 says Article 2 can never be changed.

Yet the largest bloc of voters in the December 1993 democratic elections, which were weighted in favor of traditional political parties, supported Refah, or Welfare, Turkey's largest Islamist party. Despite weeks of efforts by the same traditional elites to block it, Refah went on to form a coalition government. The most secular state in the Muslim world suddenly had an Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, who espoused some openly Islamist goals.

These changes left Turkey, a key state bridging East and West, pitting identity against ideology. The choices: To remain secular, Turkey may have to become undemocratic; to remain democratic, it may have to give up its strictly secular foundation. This conundrum emerged after the 1995 ejection, spawning political panic. Refah's coalition partner -- the True Path party of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller -- was secular. But Turkey's top generals and an array of parties, left and right, fussed and stewed over the potential for the emergence of an Islamist state if Refah remained in power.