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Turkey: Moderate Islamic Party Set To Rule Alone After Landslide Victory

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey's moderate Islamic Justice and Progress Party won an absolute majority of seats in yesterday's (3 November) early legislative poll against the backdrop of the worst economic recession this country has known since the end of World War II. Facing both difficult negotiations with the European Union and the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq, the new and untested majority party -- who itself may be banned by the country's Constitutional Court for alleged Islamic sedition -- must now look ahead to a demanding agenda.

Prague, 4 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Chanting "Tayyip for prime minister!" thousands of cheerful Turkish supporters yesterday celebrated the success of the moderate Islamic Justice and Progress (Adalet ve Kalkinma) Party, or AKP, and its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The fledgling party won a landslide victory in yesterday's early legislative poll, ending 15 years of unstable ruling coalitions.

Unofficial results released by the Anadolu news agency show that, with 100 percent of the ballots counted, AKP won 34.28 percent of the vote, thus garnering an absolute majority of seats in the 550-member legislature, the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

The Republican People's Party, or CHP -- a social-democratic formation that sees itself as the legal successor to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey -- came in second with 19.40 percent.

AKP and CHP are the only two parties to overcome the 10 percent threshold required to win seats in the legislature. They will have 363 and 178 seats respectively.

CHP leader Deniz Baykal -- whose party failed to win a single seat in the previous election in 1999 -- has already signaled his readiness to work in "constructive opposition" with the winner of yesterday's polls.

Nine independent candidates also won seats in parliament.

With almost 9.6 percent of the vote, the conservative True Path Party (DYP) of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller came in third, missing the 10 percent barrier by an inch. Ciller today said she would step down as party leader.

Turkey's Higher Election Board could take several days to confirm the results of the vote.

A total of 18 parties were competing in yesterday's poll. Among them were the three partners in the coalition cabinet that has presided over Turkey for the past 3 1/2 years: Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP), Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli's Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's center-right Motherland Party (ANAP).

All three came in well below the 10 percent threshold. The biggest blow came for Ecevit's DSP, which won just over 1 percent of the vote.

Before yesterday's vote, 77-year-old Ecevit said that, regardless of the poll's outcome, he would step down from the leadership of his party, bringing to an end his 50-year political career.

The vote, originally scheduled for April 2004, was moved forward earlier this year amid political turmoil triggered by Turkey's worst-ever economic recession since 1945 and concerns about Ecevit's health.

Ecevit, whose party lost more than half of its 128 parliamentarians during the crisis, was the only politician who opposed early elections, predicting they would result in a resounding defeat for most secular parties.

Speaking yesterday while preliminary results of the vote were being released, the veteran leader criticized his coalition partners for agreeing to reschedule the election: "Our coalition allies agreed on having elections for today instead of April 2004. It was a great mistake. This practically amounted to [political] suicide."

Founded in August 2001 by former Greater Istanbul Mayor Erdogan, AKP is an offshoot of Turkey's so-called "political Islam."

AKP, which originated from a split in the banned Fazilet (Virtue) Party, has tried to distance itself from the Islamic "old guard" represented by former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, and the Saadet (Felicity) Party, another defeated contender in yesterday's poll.

Erdogan and his party associates deny they have an Islamic agenda and prefer to describe themselves as conservative centrists similar to Western Europe's Christian-democratic politicians.

Focusing their discourse on social welfare for Turkey's needy, AKP leaders have pledged to end rampant corruption, bolster economic growth, and speed up democratic reforms needed to qualify for membership in the European Union.

Erdogan has also claimed in the past that, should his party rise to power, it would not denounce relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Ankara's main sponsor. Instead, Erdogan has advocated minor changes to the conditions of the $16 billion emergency aid package granted in February by the Washington-based international lending agency.

But Erdogan's claims that he has no prejudice against the IMF have so far failed to reassure Turkey's business community and nervous financial markets even though Turkish shares, boosted by the prospect of a single-party government, rose by 7 percent at today's morning session.

Turkey's Industrialists and Businessmen Association, or TUSIAD, today issued a statement urging AKP to stick to the economic-recovery program agreed with the IMF. TUSIAD also cautioned Erdogan and his associates against any "populist moves" that could jeopardize efforts to remove the country from its economic crisis.

Dismissing AKP's claims that it has broken ties with "political Islam," Ecevit last week accused AKP of having a hidden agenda. Yesterday, the outgoing prime minister reiterated his accusations: "I still have concerns. Up until now, this party -- I mean the AK party -- has not said what it would do should it make the government. They have said almost nothing."

Erdogan has sought to soothe worries that his party's victory would signal a U-turn in Turkey's pro-Western, market-oriented policy.

Addressing a crowd of cheerful supporters yesterday night, Erdogan vowed to build a Turkey "where common sense prevails" and denied any plans to "challenge the world." He also said relations with the European Union will remain a priority for Turkey: "We have to get in touch with the leading and opposition party leaders of the European Union as soon as possible and build a working infrastructure."

Erdogan today said he would dispatch envoys to Brussels in the coming days. The European Commission has said it is ready to work with Turkey's new leadership.

Turkey applied for EU membership in 1987, but was granted candidate status only three years ago. Brussels has so far refused to set a date for entry talks with Ankara -- a delay due mainly to European concerns over human rights issues and negotiations over the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

At a meeting last month, the EU confirmed that Cyprus, which has been partially occupied by Turkish troops for the past 28 years, is among 10 states due to wrap up accession talks in December in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

Turkey opposes Cyprus's entry into the 15-member bloc until a peaceful solution to its dispute with EU member Greece over the island is found. Ankara also wants the EU to officialize the existence of the Northern Cyprus administration, which is recognized only by its Turkish sponsor.

The issue of Iraq will prove another major test for Turkey's new leaders. The outgoing cabinet has repeatedly said it opposes Washington's plans to take military action against Baghdad, fearing that any new regional conflict might seriously affect Turkey's already battered economy. Ankara has also expressed concern that trouble along its borders might impact its mainly Kurdish southeastern provinces.

AKP leaders have so far remained relatively vague on the Iraq issue, aligning themselves with the previous government's position. Yesterday, Erdogan suggested he is opposed to any unilateral U.S. move against Turkey's southern neighbor, saying his party is against new "war, blood, tears" in the region. But the AKP leader remained evasive regarding how Ankara's attitude might change should the United Nations Security Council approve U.S.-led military strikes: "Regarding [a possible U.S.-led strike against Iraq]: unlike before the [antiterror] campaign in Afghanistan, it has so far been impossible to build up an international coalition. We are bound by the United Nations decision. We can't say anything before seeing what attitude the UN will adopt regarding this issue."

Erdogan has so far acted as though he will be Turkey's next prime minister. But despite leading the ruling party, the 48-year-old politician cannot officially assume power in Turkey's next cabinet.

In September, Turkey's Higher Election Board barred Erdogan from standing as a candidate, citing his conviction for Islamic sedition in the late 1990s. Erdogan actively campaigned for his party despite the ruling.

On 1 November, just two days prior to the election, the Constitutional Court briefly convened behind closed doors to examine a demand filed by Turkey's chief prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu, to block Erdogan from being party leader and to outlaw AKP.

The court decided to defer the hearing and give the party 15 days to prepare its defense. Whether the court will decide to ban a party that won more than 30 percent of the parliamentary seats is unclear.

Tradition dictates that Turkey's president names the parliamentarian that runs the leading party as prime minister, but with Erdogan out of the legislature, this is impossible. The constitution, however, gives the president the power to appoint any member of parliament to run the government.

AKP leaders are expected to meet in the coming days to discuss whom they will nominate for prime minister. A possible candidate could be AKP Deputy Chairman Abdullah Gul. Analysts say Erdogan will wield considerable influence over the new government, regardless of who is appointed prime minister.

Negotiations over the composition of the next cabinet have already started, but it could take several days before a government is formed. In the meantime, Sezer could ask Ecevit to remain in place as caretaker prime minister.

Both men are due to meet later today at the president's residence in Ankara. Ecevit is expected to hand over his resignation in a routine procedural move.