SAMSUN, Turkey – Thousands of flag-waving Turks filled a square in this Black Sea coastal city on Sunday in the latest of a series of nationwide protests against the pro-Islamic government they fear is challenging secular Turkish society.
The demonstration in Samsun follows massive protests in Turkey's three largest cities — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir — and comes ahead of the July 22 general elections which will pit Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party against the secular opposition.
Sunday's rally drew a smaller crowd than the previous protests, but it was symbolic because of Samsun's importance in recent Turkish history. The city was where the country's secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, launched the war of independence against occupying powers after World War I.
An AP photographer estimated that some 20,000 to 25,000 people took part in the protest. More than 1 million people had taken part in the demonstration in Izmir last week.
Carrying Turkish flags and posters of Ataturk, the demonstrators chanted "Turkey is secular and will remain secular!" The leaders of two main secular parties, who formed an alliance last week, attended the rally together in a show of unity ahead of the polls.
"I owe my identity, my rights as a woman, everything to Ataturk," said Sezer Ozdogan, a retired teacher. "I am here to tell (the government) that they cannot undo what he did."
The demonstrations began in early April to pressure Erdogan's government against nominating his ally, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, as a presidential candidate. Many Turks feared the move would allow his Islamic-leaning party to expand its powers and govern unchecked.
Secular opposition parties then boycotted the presidential voting process in parliament, creating a political deadlock and forcing Gul to abandon his bid.
The standoff, along with increasing pressure from Turkey's powerful military, led Erdogan to call for early parliamentary elections. Legislators also passed an amendment to allow the president to be elected directly by the people, rather than by parliament, which is dominated by members of Erdogan's party. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has yet to endorse the amendment.
Parties from Turkey's fractured secular opposition have scrambled to unite to challenge Erdogan's party at the polls, leading the main opposition Republican People's Party to join forces with the Democratic Left Party.
Democratic Left leader Zeki Sezer told the crowd Sunday the parties had found "a formula to take Turkey toward enlightenment and prevent those who want to take Turkey toward darkness."
Erdogan spent time in jail in 1999 for reading a poem at a political rally which the courts deemed as a challenge to Turkey's secular system, and many of his party's members, including Gul, are pious Muslims who made their careers in the country's Islamist political movement.
Erdogan rejects the label "Islamist," however, and says he is committed to Turkey's secular traditions. His government has done more than most previous governments to advance Turkey's European Union membership bid.
Turkey's secularism is enshrined in the constitution and fiercely guarded by the judiciary and by the military, which has overthrown governments in the past. The U.S. and EU have warned Turkey to prevent its military from defying civilian leaders.
"We are here to cry out loud that we are against Sharia (Islamic law)," protest organizer Turkan Saylan said Sunday. "And we are against military coups!"