Turkish parliament adopts controversial education reform bill

After a long and stormy session, the Turkish parliament adopted a controversial higher education reform bill which has been denounced by the powerful military as a threat to the mainly Muslim country's secular order.

The bill seeks to ease restrictions on graduates of Islamic schools in obtaining university degrees other than in divinity studies, thus opening the way for them to hold public office.

After 18 hours of debate, opposition parties boycotted the vote on the bill, which passed with the support of 254 members of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) against four dissenting voices.

The opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which unsuccessfully tried to prevent a vote through procedural delaying tactics, said Thursday that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted to give Turkey an educational system "similar to that of Iran and the Arab countries".

CHP leader Deniz Baykal accused the government of trying to exploit religion for political ends and declared "this enterprise will harm social peace and stability."

Turkey now seems set for a constitutional tussle between Erdogan and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a strictly secular former lawyer who is expected to refuse to sign the bill into law.

In that event, the government could return to parliament for a second vote and the head of state would no longer have the right to withhold his signature. He could, however, ask the constitutional court to declare the bill unlawful.

A parliamentary source said the governing party could also decide to scrap the bill in light of the criticism it has generated.

While enrolment numbers have dropped sharply in the past decade, religious schools in Turkey are regarded by many as breeding grounds for Islamist political movements.

Under the existing university entrance system, it is almost impossible for their graduates to win a place at institutions of higher education other than divinity faculties. That effectively bars Islamist-leaning Turks from obtaining degrees required to hold government jobs.

Erdogan, a graduate of a religious school, promised to reform the system before the election on November 2002 which swept his party to power with two-thirds of the members of the 550-seat lower house of parliament.

But the army has warned the government not to go ahead with a measure which it sees as a threat to the principles of the secular republic founded by Mutafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

The country's liberal media criticized the government for pushing ahead with the reform despite widespread opposition.

"Turkey's image (abroad) is getting worse," the wide circulation daily Hurriyet headlined Thursday.