Last week saw the launching in Ankara of Turkey's 39th officially registered political party. Known as "Justice and Progress," this new right-wing formation is led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the charismatic former mayor of Istanbul, who has pledged to bring fresh blood to the country's creaking political system. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.
Prague, 21 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With its economy in a shaky state, its mainstream political parties losing more popularity every day, and its influential military publicly challenged by some of the country's leading politicians, Turkey is, without doubt, in crisis.
While Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's coalition government is engaged in a race against the clock to implement a tough reform program aimed at overcoming a 10-month-old economic crisis with the help of international financial institutions, the entire nation is talking about an imminent social explosion.
Over half a million Turks have lost their jobs in sectors ranging from banking to light industry since February, when the national currency, the lira, lost nearly 50 percent of its value against the dollar. Nearly 3 million Turks live on only the equivalent of $100 a month, while a handful made a fortune just before the crisis by changing their lira into foreign currency.
Shortly before the International Monetary Fund agreed last month to release the first installment of a proposed $16 billion aid package, the National Security Council -- a major decision-making body that comprises both government officials and high-ranking generals -- expressed concerns that the deteriorating economic situation could lead to civil unrest.
Confidence in the government has reached a record low over the past few months amid a series of corruption scandals involving ministers affiliated with the Motherland Party (ANAP), one of Ecevit's two coalition partners.
Hamit Bozarslan is an expert on Turkey at the Paris-based School of Higher Studies in the Social Sciences, better known under its French acronym of EHESS. In an interview with our correspondent, he said the confidence crisis is affecting the whole spectrum of Turkey's political life.
"What is happening in Turkey is that the whole political system is in crisis. Latest opinion polls show that the parliament has zero confidence credit and that all political parties enjoy only a few percentage points of support among voters. If elections were to be held tomorrow, no one knows whether a single party would get the 10 percent of votes necessary to be represented in the National Assembly. Unless some renewal is taking place in the political establishment, unless confidence in politics is restored, neither the Islamists nor any other party will really be in a position to change things and the system will get into deeper and deeper crisis."
Elections are not due until May 2004. Opinion surveys show that if legislative polls were to be held now, Ecevit's Democratic Left Party -- the biggest party in parliament -- would gather only some four percent of the votes.
Among those calling for early elections are the leaders of the Justice and Progress Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi), a moderate Islamic party that was founded last week in Ankara.
The new group, also known by its Turkish acronym of AK -- which together spell the word for "white" or "clean" -- has pledged to bring fresh blood to Turkey's creaking political system, seen as fraught with widespread fraud, corruption, nepotism, and authoritarianism. Led by former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, AK claims that it will focus on social welfare and pay greater attention to the needs of ordinary Turks.
Speaking last week (14 August) in Ankara at a ceremony marking the founding of the new party, Erdogan said Turkey is entering a new political era:
"I congratulate you, because from now on nothing will be the same in our Turkey. (Applause) I am telling you that you should trust us now as you did trust us up until today."
AK originates from a split within the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi), another Islamic formation which was banned two months ago by the Constitutional Court on charges that its alleged calls to establish an Islamic Sharia law represented a threat to Turkey's secularism. Virtue was also accused of being the continuation of Welfare, another Islamic party banned in early 1998.
Welfare leader Necmettin Erbakan, who became Turkey's first-ever Islamic prime minister in 1996 before being forced out by the military, was considered the main ideologist behind Virtue.
Last month, Virtue conservative leader Recai Kutan -- who had been challenged by Erdogan and other reformists for years -- set up a new party known as Felicity (Saadet Partisi) with Erbakan's blessing and open support.
Kutan claims that he has the backing of most Islamic voters. Yet analysts agree that the conservative Islamic movement is a mere shadow of its former self.
Remy Leveau is a regional analyst at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Leveau said that, in his view, Turkey's conservative political Islam is on the wane.
"Unlike nationalist parties, which are getting stronger and stronger, Virtue [had] fewer representatives in parliament, less public support than [Welfare] had in the  elections, when it arrived first. Even though Erbakan did not get an absolute majority, he was designated to form the government. Erbakan's current influence has nothing to do with what it used to be in 1994 or 1995."
Only 48 of the 102 former Virtue deputies have decided to join Saadet, making it the smallest parliamentary group in the 550-seat National Assembly. By contrast, 51 deputies -- including 46 former Virtue representatives -- have sided with AK over the past week, and the party is expected to gain further prominence.
One of the most popular politicians in today's Turkey, 47-year-old Erdogan has pledged that his formation will be truly democratic -- unlike most Turkish political parties which tolerate little dissent -- and financially transparent.
AK leaders, who have pledged to work "to solve the nation's problems," advocate a reconciliation between Turkey's Islamic traditions and Western democratic values.
They also stress the need to address a broader electorate instead of appealing only to pious voters with an old-fashioned Islamic rhetoric that has led the military -- which sees itself as the guardian of secularism -- to close down four Islamic parties since the early 1970s.
Bozarslan, however, does not believe that the Islamic "innovators" -- as they sometimes call themselves -- represent a true alternative to the current political crisis.
"I think that it will be extremely difficult [for them]. They will face the same problems that other parties have been facing, including the very tight control exerted by the military on the political system. And I do not think that they will have the intellectual, material, or even legal capacity to offer new solutions regarding civil liberties, the Kurdish problem, the necessary political changes, or the rapprochement with the European Union. Regarding these issues I do not think that their party will bring anything new."
Turkey stands last among 13 current EU candidates. Although Ankara formally applied for membership in 1987, accession talks have not yet begun.
Five months ago, the government approved a national program of political, economic, and legal reforms that it said should pave the way for Turkey's entry into the 15-nation bloc. But the EU has expressed reservations about this program, notably regarding human rights issues.
Earlier this month (5 August), ANAP leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz harshly criticized the national security concept, saying it could prevent Turkey from joining the EU. Yilmaz, who is in charge of relations with Brussels, urged the country's leadership to abolish what he described as "unnecessary restrictions" on civil liberties that would only further delay Ankara's EU membership.
The military shot back by accusing Yilmaz of questioning the role of the powerful army generals only to cover his party's declining popularity over allegations of corruption.
Both President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Ecevit publicly distanced themselves from Yilmaz, dismissing suggestions that the military was opposed to the accession program.
Turkish armed forces, which are regularly voted the most popular institution in opinion polls, fear that the reforms required by the EU would awaken Kurdish separatism and political Islam.
Erdogan, who was prosecuted and temporarily banned from political life two years ago for publicly reading a poem comparing minarets to "bayonets" and mosques to "barracks," is making every possible effort to reassure the military regarding his political goals.
He has carefully avoided referring to religion over the past few months and has claimed that his party has nothing in common with Erbakan's Islamic "old guard."
Erdogan went as far as praising secularism as the "backbone of democracy" and did not hesitate to display a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- the father of secular Turkey -- at his party's founding ceremony.
Yet, asked whether Erdogan and his allies will really differ from their conservative rivals, Bozarslan said:
"It is extremely difficult and too early to answer this question at the moment because the situation is moving and there is not a single landmark left in today's political environment. Anything can happen. Every kind of political alliance can emerge overnight. Those who today look like democrats could take an ultranationalist stance tomorrow. So it is far too early to say anything."
As political commentator Ilnur Cevik wrote last week (15 August) in the Ankara-based "Turkish Daily News," "If the [AK] Party achieves even some of the promised objectives mentioned in its program, it will revolutionize our political system and turn our country into a [paradise]."
But Cevik added: "Erdogan and his friends have made a good start. [Now] they have to follow up their promises with deeds."
Meanwhile, the "Hurriyet" daily newspaper reported today that prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation against Erdogan for allegedly questioning the durability of Turkey's secularism back in 1994.