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Turkey's prime minister slams The Economist

By Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert, CNN
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused The Economist of working on behalf of Israeli interests.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused The Economist of working on behalf of Israeli interests.
  • Turkey's parliamentary elections scheduled for June 12
  • Economist: Prime Minister Erdogan "has faced few checks or balances," in recent years
  • Economist editorial endorses the main opposition in the upcoming election
  • "How careless is this? How tactless is this?" says Erdogan in response to editorial

Istanbul, Turkey (CNN) -- Turkey is no stranger to name-calling and over-heated rhetoric, especially in the final days before a national election.

In the run-up to parliamentary elections on June 12, however, politics have taken an unexpected turn, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party leveled broadsides against the influential British news magazine The Economist.

Erdogan and several top-ranking government officials have denounced The Economist and accused it of working on behalf of Israeli interests. The flap erupted after an Economist editorial endorsed the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) in the upcoming election.

"The real worry about the AK Party's untrammeled rule concerns democracy, not religion," The Economist wrote on June 2.

"Ever since Mr. Erdogan won his battles with the army and the judiciary, he has faced few checks or balances. That has freed him to indulge his natural intolerance of criticism and fed his autocratic instincts."

The next day, Erdogan fired back at a campaign rally in the Turkish city of Konya. He linked The Economist to Israel and his political rival CHP chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu: "Obviously the greeting that the CHP chairman sent to Israel found its response. An international magazine, I announce its name too -- The Economist -- publishes an analysis. Not indirectly, but directly, it says 'Vote for CHP.' How careless is this? How tactless is this?"

Another leading AK Party candidate, former Interior Minister Besir Atalay, was quoted in the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman saying "We all know about the impact of the Israeli lobby in international media institutions. I consider this a reflection of Turkey's policies in regards to Israel and the Palestinian people."

We all know about the impact of the Israeli lobby in international media institutions.
--Former Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay

Relations have sharply deteriorated between Turkey and Israel, formerly close regional allies, over the last year. Ankara withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv after Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American citizen aboard the ship Mavi Marmara as it tried to run the Israeli blockade around Gaza.

Erdogan has enjoyed support both domestically and regionally, after repeatedly lashing out against Israel, accusing its leaders of "killing (Palestinian) children on the beaches."

Despite the rupture in military, diplomatic and intelligence-sharing ties, trade between the two Middle Eastern countries continues to boom. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, bilateral trade increased 25% in 2010. It jumped a further 33% in the first quarter of 2011.

Erdogan's AK Party is riding high in the polls, largely as a result of its successful economic track record. Turkey has enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic stability and growth since Erdogan's AK Party first swept to power in 2002 elections.

Polls predict Erdogan's party is likely to once again win a majority of seats in parliament. The question is whether the AK Party will be able to capture 367 parliament posts out of the 550-person body. That two-thirds majority would allow Erdogan to unilaterally rewrite Turkey's constitution, without having to go to a referendum. Turkey's current constitution was written in 1982 by a military regime and has been widely criticized as undemocratic and in need of major reform.

There are growing signs of the shift in power from military to civilian institutions since Erdogan took power.

Over the last four years, dozens of high-ranking army generals and commanders (as well as journalists, academics and businessmen) have been arrested in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the Erdogan government.

And on Monday, a special prosecutor questioned one of Turkey's once-untouchable political figures, Kenan Evren. The general, who led a 1980 military coup that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of thousands of political opponents, answered questions for hours at his home in Ankara.

Evren's lawyer told journalists the retired general was questioned about the period before and after the coup.

CNN Jerusalem Bureau Producer Izzy Lemberg contributed to this report