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Turkey: Country Gearing Up For Early Parliamentary Polls

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey's traditionally volatile political scene is preparing for general elections amid uncertainty over who will run this strategic NATO ally for the next five years. Opinion polls have tipped a moderate Islamic party as the victor of the 3 November election, but analysts say it is hard to predict what kind of government will emerge from the polls.

Prague, 1 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey is gearing up for early legislative elections this Sunday (3 November) against the backdrop of its worst economic recession since the end of World War II.

The poll, originally due in April 2004, was moved forward earlier this year amid political turmoil triggered by concerns about Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's health.

The 77-year-old political veteran, whom many in Turkey hold directly responsible for the 18-month economic crisis, is likely to be the first victim of Sunday's election.

Addressing supporters on 28 October in Istanbul, Ecevit said he might resign in the coming days or weeks from the leadership of his Democratic Left Party, or DSP, thus effectively ending 50 years of political activity.

The DSP, which emerged as Turkey's largest parliamentary group in the 1999 election, has lost the majority of its members in the past few months as unrest spread in its ranks. Growing criticism over Ecevit's leadership prompted more than half of the 128 DSP parliamentarians to relinquish their party membership during the summer. Most defectors joined the ranks of New Turkey, or YTP, a party founded in August by former DSP Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.

A total of 18 parties are contesting the 3 November poll, but opinion surveys suggest that only two are likely to overcome the 10 percent threshold necessary to be represented in parliament.

One of these is the Justice and Progress Party, or AKP, a moderate Islamic group set up a year ago by former Greater Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The party's acronym in Turkish means "white" or "clean."

The other party is Deniz Baykal's secular, social-democratic Republican People's Party, or CHP.

Details of three different opinion polls published last month (6 October) in Turkey's mainstream "Hurriyet" daily show that 27 to 30 percent of respondents support AKP, while another 11 to 18 percent favor the CHP.

Since AKP emerged as a leading political force, Erdogan and his associates have tried to distance themselves from representatives of Turkey's Islamic "old guard," such as former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, or Recai Kutan, the leader of the Saadet (Felicity Party), another contender in Sunday's poll. AKP leaders now reject the Islamist label and describe themselves as conservative centrists.

AKP has largely benefited from the economic turmoil and high unemployment, focusing their discourse on social welfare for the needy.

Although AKP's main constituency lies in Anatolia's impoverished heartland and in the desolated suburbs of Turkey's big cities, the party professes a pro-Western policy. It supports Ankara's bid to join the European Union.

Erdogan has pledged in the past that should his party win it would not fundamentally review Turkey's relations with its main sponsor, the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Rather, Erdogan says Turkey would seek minor changes to conditions of the $16 billion rescue package granted in February by the international lending agency.

The 48-year-old political leader has also vowed to improve Turkey's aging infrastructure, as he did with Istanbul's water supplies during his time as mayor.

During a recent electoral meeting, Erdogan blamed the economic policies of Turkey's past leaders, using the country's antiquated vote-counting system as a metaphor to illustrate its backwardness: "For God's sake, even in Brazil they now count ballots with the help of electronic devices, while we are still using ink and rubber stamps!"

Despite Erdogan's pro-Western rhetoric, many secularists -- including influential army generals who five years ago toppled the country's first-ever Islamic prime minister -- see him as a threat to Turkey's republican values.

Last week (23 October), Turkish Chief Prosecutor Sabih Kanadoglu cited Erdogan's active election campaigning to ask the Constitutional Court to outlaw the AKP and, as a "precautionary measure," to block the former Istanbul mayor from the party leadership. The court briefly convened behind closed doors today and said the case would be examined after a 15-day break to give the AKP and its leader time to prepare their defense.

In 1998, Erdogan was sentenced to 10 months in jail and forced out of office for publicly reciting a poem deemed subversive by secular authorities. He was released in 1999 after serving four months in prison.

Turkey's judiciary has filed four indictments against Erdogan in recent months on various charges of corruption and embezzlement pertaining to his tenure as Istanbul mayor. Erdogan has denied the accusations, which AKP members say are part of a broader scheme to discredit the frontrunner in Sunday's election.

Other contenders are using the indictments filed against Erdogan as a political tool. During an election meeting this week, CHP leader Baykal chided his main rival, saying Erdogan might not be as "clean" as the party's acronym might suggest: "Our name is not 'clean,' but [at least] we have nothing to be ashamed of [laughter from the crowd]. The [AKP] general secretary has 15 corruption files behind him and he is unable to account for anything. He, nonetheless, claims his party is 'clean'!"

Baykal's CHP -- the legal successor to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey -- was among the biggest losers in the previous parliamentary elections and did not have a single representative in the legislature for the past three years. The party, however, won three parliamentary seats this summer in the wake of the implosion of the DSP.

Baykal's trump card is Kemal Dervis, a former World Bank director whom Ecevit summoned back last year to rescue Turkey's battered economy. In July, the 52-year-old economist turned down a proposal made by outgoing Foreign Minister Cem to become a founding member of his new political party.

Despite a promising debut, Cem's YTP has not gotten off the ground. Opinion polls show that it will probably not get the minimum 10 percent of votes necessary to enter parliament.

Cem has been promoting a resolute pro-Western policy, advocating more democratic reforms to foster Turkey's EU membership bid. But analysts believe his technocratic discourse is unlikely to appeal to Turkish voters. As evidence of their claims, they could cite the following comments made recently by Cem before a group of potential supporters: "We will increase the quality and improve the definition of ministries. We will change their specificity. Ministries will be technical, technical. Ministers will be selected among those who in Turkey know their job best."

Many Turks might feel closer to those politicians -- such as former Prime Minister and center-right True Path Party (DYP) leader Tansu Ciller, or Youth Party (GP) leader Cem Uzan -- who want to revise the terms of the IMF recovery package or to end relations with the IMF.

To believe opinion surveys, neither party is likely to win representation in parliament, even though Uzan, a newcomer in politics, has managed to increase his popularity by pledging to distribute land to the poor and slash taxes.

Another group that likely will not clear the 10 percent barrier is Deputy Prime Minister and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli.

A fierce critic of democratic changes demanded by the EU to qualify for membership, Bahceli has nonetheless managed to soften his image since he entered Ecevit's coalition cabinet in 1999.

Yet, with the election approaching, the nationalist leader has taken a harsher stance, reiterating -- as he did in a recent election meeting -- his opposition to greater concessions to Kurds for fear of reigniting armed separatism in the Turkey's southeast: "Are we going to sell off the victories won by our armed forces at the expense of hundreds of martyrs' lives around a [negotiation] table?" Bahceli's comments were a direct reference to demands made by the EU as a prerequisite to begin formal negotiations with Ankara.

Last month, the EU confirmed that the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has been partly occupied by Turkish troops since 1974, is one of 10 European states due to wrap up accession talks in December in Copenhagen. But the 15-nation bloc has so far refused to set up a date for entry negotiations with Ankara.

Turkey applied for EU membership in 1987, but was granted candidate status only three years ago -- a delay due mainly to European concerns over human rights.

In August, Turkish legislators amended the country's legislation to address some of Brussels' concerns. Recent changes include the abolition of death penalty in peacetime and the theoretical possibility of broadcasting and teaching in the Kurdish language.

Yet, despite some improvements -- such as last month's decision to commute Kurdistan Workers Party's leader Abdullah Ocalan's death sentence to life imprisonment -- harassment of Turkey's 12 million-strong Kurdish minority continues.

On 29 October, a candidate for the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP), the only pro-Kurdish party running in Sunday's poll, was detained in the central Anatolian town of Nevsehir for failing to stand to attention during Republic Day ceremonies.

DEHAP, a small party formed in the 1990s, serves as an umbrella group for several leftist parties, including HADEP, Turkey's mainstream, legal Kurdish group. With a popularity largely confined in Turkey's southeastern, DEHAP is unlikely to win seats in the national parliament.

HADEP has long been suspected by Turkish authorities of illegal links with armed Kurdish separatists. It withdrew from the election two months ago, saying its candidates would campaign under other banners to circumvent a possible ban.

Opinion polls show nearly 20 percent of voters are undecided, leaving the door open for any possible surprise.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Ecevit said it was difficult to guess what kind of government would emerge from Sunday's vote. Analysts say a coalition government is the likely outcome, meaning it might take weeks of harsh negotiations before a new cabinet is formed.