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A clear win in Turkey

Published : Dec 06, 2002 00:00 IST

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The big victory of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development in the Turkish elections sends alarm bells ringing in Western capitals.

THE landslide victory of the Party of Justice and Development (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the former Mayor of Istanbul, in the general elections held in the first week of November has for the first time in more than 15 years given an absolute majority to a single party in the Turkish Parliament. The AKP's major campaign plank was good governance, integration of Turkey with the European Union (E.U.) and liberalisation of the political system.

For the last couple of years, Turkey has been in dire financial straits. The currency has been drastically devalued, the unemployment rate, unofficially estimated at around 30 per cent, has shot up, and corruption has continued unchecked. The Gulf War did not bring Turkey any economic or political dividends. In fact, owing to the closure of the oil pipeline between Turkey and Iraq, Ankara is estimated to have lost revenues totalling around $4 billion annually. Turkey today has become the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) biggest debtor.

Last year, the IMF got the government to open up further its economy in lieu of a credit of $16 billion. The structural reforms programme implemented at the behest of the IMF led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and basic wages lost half their value owing to devaluation.

Even before the countdown to the elections began, pollsters had predicted a victory for the AKP. But the scale of the victory has set alarm bells ringing in many Western capitals. They would have preferred a coalition government consisting of the AKP and the pro-liberalisation Republican People's Party, the party founded by the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. It was the only other party that found representation in the new Parliament, but it did not do as well as predicted. It took 19 per cent of the votes and 179 seats.

The AKP, on the other hand, with 34 per cent of the votes, won 363 seats. All the other parties went unrepresented in Parliament as they failed to clear the 10 per cent barrier required under Turkish electoral laws. All the three parties that were part of the outgoing coalition government under Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit fared miserably. Ecevit's Democratic Left party could eke out barely 1 per cent of the vote. The True Path party, led by former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, failed narrowly to clear the 10 per cent barrier. The various Left parties did quite well individually but have not got representation in Parliament because they chose to contest separately. The Democratic People's Party, representing mainly the Kurds, got a respectable 6.2 per cent of the vote.

Turkey has been part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) grouping from the outset and is expected to become a full-fledged member of the E.U. in the near future. Turkey has also been assigned a key role in the U.S. game plan for West Asia and the Caucasus. American planes currently take off from Turkish bases to attack targets in the so-called no-fly zones inside Iraq. Turkey is viewed by the U.S. as a military bridge head in the region. The AKP's vote base consists of ordinary Turks who are fed up with American policies in the region after September 11 and the continued use of Turkish military bases by U.S. forces in pursuance of their goals.

The electoral outcome is yet another illustration of the Muslim world's disenchantment with Washington. Reflecting the groundswell of public opinion, Ecevit had repeatedly stated that his government was against a renewed war in the region. Another reason why the Turkish establishment is also not in favour of a new U.S.- led war against Iraq is the Kurdish problem. They fear that in a scenario involving the disintegration of Iraq, the Kurds could end up with a viable state of their own, with U.S. blessings. After all, the majority of the Kurdish population of around 25 million is in Turkey.

Analysts feel that it would have been difficult for a coalition government to resist U.S. pressure in the event of hostilities breaking out in the region. The Turkish military establishment has close links with its American counterpart. Besides there are "strategic ties'' between Turkey and Israel. Now with the Islamists having a nearly two-thirds majority in Parliament, it will be more difficult for the U.S. and the Turkish military to do things their own way, bypassing the political establishment.

The AKP leader, Erdogan, has been careful in articulating his views on several contentious issues that have been exercising the minds of his countrymen. The military establishment had put him under a scanner for his alleged Islamist leanings. A Turkish court has barred Erdogan from holding public office for a speech he made when he was the Mayor in the late 1990s. Erdogan had recited a verse: "Mosques are our barracks, minarets our bayonets, domes our helmets, the believers our soldiers.''

The military, which sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey's secular traditions, has no love lost for the Islamists. It tried to use the speech as a pretext to sideline Erdogan politically. He had already become a name to reckon with in the country's politics at the time because of his efficient handling of matters in Istanbul as its Mayor. Erdogan was sentenced to four months in prison and barred from holding elected office. The case is in an appeal court, but there was considerable pressure to remove him from the chairmanship of the AKP during the run-up to the elections.

Erdogan was the mascot of the AKP, with hoardings bearing his visage plastered all over the country.

The scale of the victory masterminded by him has seemingly mellowed the military establishment. The Army chief, General Hilmi Ozkok, speaking after the election results were announced, said that the wish of the Turkish people should be respected. Five years ago the military had ousted the government led by the Islamist Welfare Party (since banned) in a "silent coup'' although it enjoyed majority support in Parliament. The Army leadership at that time said that it would keep fighting the Islamists for another "thousand years if need be''.

Erdogan has not given up his conciliatory tone after the results came in. He said that he would not let any misunderstandings crop up between the Army and his party. He has reiterated his commitment to honour all deals with the IMF, and promised to speed up Turkey's drive for E.U. membership. The E.U. has set some conditions for Turkey's membership. It wants the Army's influence in politics to be removed, restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language to be lifted fully and a speedy solution to be found to the Cyprus problem. The E.U. wants a united Cyprus, with Turkish troops out of the island.

Erdogan has, however, refused to give a blank cheque to the U.S. on the use of Turkish bases in any war with Iraq. He said that his party opposed war with Iraq but would "respect'' any United Nations decision on Iraq. "The most preferred result is to resolve the issue in peace. We don't want blood, tears and death.'' Erdogan preferred to be silent on the extremely close economic and security ties his country has with Israel. He, however, said that his party considers Israel's policies towards Palestinians as "terrorism''.

At the same time, he has been stressing that his party has no links with radical Islam. "We are not a party with an Islamic axis,'' Erdogan said. He has promised to respect the "lifestyles'' of the Turkish people. On the campaign trail, he had promised to uphold the rule of law in civil life. The Turkish security apparatus is known for its penchant for using strong-arm methods against political detainees. Erdogan's party had fielded eminent civil servants as candidates and was respectful towards the military during the election campaign.

After the magnitude of the political earthquake became clear, there have been demands from across the political spectrum that the ban on Erdogan holding political office be lifted. Among those calling for the lifting of the ban is Deniz Baykal, the leader of the Republican People's Party, the only other party in the new Parliament. Erdogan, meanwhile, is giving the impression that he is not too worried about his inability to assume the Prime Minister's office. He has said that he would also not be a puppeteer, running the show from behind the scenes. His party will name a candidate for the prime ministerial post. However, not many expect Erdogan to remain in the background for long.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Dec 06, 2002.)

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