ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s staunchly secularist military shunned the President’s Republic Day reception on Friday night, attended for the first time by his headscarf-wearing wife, in a snub to the country’s pious rulers.
In the past President Abdullah Gul had given two separate parties, pandering to secularist sensitivities by conducting the higher-profile evening affair without his spouse, but this year he held just one event, which she co-hosted.
The military held a separate party, Turkish media reported, demonstrating the lingering divide between the secularist old guard and the rising class of conservative Muslims, epitomised by Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
“The military should have come here. The place for a reception tonight is the presidential palace,” broadcaster CNN Turk quoted Erdogan, who added he opposed the idea of a reception elsewhere.
Republic Day commemorates the founding of a secularist, modern Turkey on the ruins the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. It is traditionally a day in which the presence of Ataturk, Turkey’s revered first President, looms large.
Gul and his wife Hayrunnisa, Turkey’s first first lady to cover her head, moved into Ankara’s presidential palace in 2007 to the chagrin of the secularists, who had tried to block his appointment.
Some secularists consider Hayrunnisa’s headscarf as an affront to the emancipation of women Ataturk struggled to achieve, as well as to Turkey’s official secularist ethos.
Gul’s decision to give just one reception this year comes at a time of increased confidence for observant Muslims that they can challenge old secularist norms, such as a ban on headscarves in universities, with the tide of public support behind them.
The military’s absence from Gul’s reception by contrast has been viewed as a sign of resentment by those unable to accept change and waning power.
Turkey’s army — which has a long history of intervening in politics and has ousted four elected governments — has long seen itself as a bulwark against any move towards Islamisation.
This year has seen unprecedented military arrests however amid allegations of plots and planned coups by former and serving officers, as the government flexes its muscles.
“There will be only one (presidential) reception this year, and by skipping this reception high ranking military officials will be in symbolic revolt against the presidency,” columnist Cengiz Candar wrote in newspaper Radikal.
“This is inappropriate. At any another time, maybe even last year, this would have led to political tension. But this year, it’s not the case, they are being made fun of.”
“The military’s attitude towards the reception shows that it is regressing as Turkey develops,” he added.
In September a majority of Turks voted in favour of reforms to the constitution which Erdogan said will make EU membership candidate Turkey more democratic.
The referendum victory for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party dealt another blow to the secularist camp.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of Turkey’s leading opposition party (CHP) which was founded by Ataturk, announced earlier on Friday he would also not attend Gul’s reception, but added this had nothing to do with the first lady.
“I am going to celebrate it among the people,” he said.
“It is wrong to suggest that we are not going there because (the first lady) wears a headscarf. Her choice of dress is her concern, not ours.”
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay