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Turkey: U.S.-based Analysts See Hard Times Ahead For New Party

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S.-based Turkey analysts see tough times ahead for the Justice and Development Party, a party with Islamist roots that has won a landslide victory in elections in secular Turkey.

Washington, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has hailed Turkish democracy after last weekend's elections were swept by a refashioned moderate party with roots in the Islamist movement.

The White House and State Department said the U.S. will be happy to work with any democratic government in office in Ankara -- a long-time NATO ally that Washington may call upon to play a key role in any conflict with its southern neighbor Iraq.

But U.S.-based analysts of the Muslim world's only secular democracy were less hopeful about Turkey's prospects under the Justice and Progress Party (AKP), which routed the country's traditional secular parties on 3 November to capture a commanding majority in parliament.

"Clearly, this has been an earthquake, and the ripple effects are going to go on for a long time," said Bulent Aliriza, director of Turkish studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Aliriza yesterday joined former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Mark Parris and Turkey analyst Soner Cagaptay for a discussion of the election at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

They all emphasized the difficulty in making any prognosis about the near-term future in Turkey, a secular state whose military has banned Islamist parties in the past, including in 1998 and 2001.

The AKP, with roots in a banned Islamist party, rode to victory on a wave of protest at economic recession and official graft that was propelled by the wide popularity of its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But although Erdogan and the AKP have restyled their image as moderates favoring NATO and joining the European Union, the former mayor of Istanbul cannot hold office due to a conviction for alleged Islamist sedition.

Parris, who was ambassador from 1997 to 2000, says he does not believe the military will take any immediate steps against the party. But AKP still faces a court hearing later this month in which Turkey's chief prosecutor hopes to block Erdogan from leading the party and to ban AKP altogether.

Aliriza says AKP is destined to face the same challenges that past Turkish parties faced: "Despite [the fact that AKP] says it's not Islamist, it's going to run into similar problems because even if it doesn't define itself subjectively, it will be defined objectively by its enemies."

Turkish-born Cagaptay says AKP's claims to be moderate will be sorely tested as the party seeks to please both the moderates who backed it as well as its traditional core, which he says is still made up of conservative Islamists.

Cagaptay himself doubts the sincerity of the AKP leaders' claims to have embraced a moderate line: "When I look at these people to see whether or not they're Islamists, I look at their wives. [Laughter] And I would argue that except for Vecdi Gonul, the former chief justice of the Court of Accounts, the others are Islamists. Whether they have changed, whether they say differently, that's how they live."

Cagaptay says he believes AKP is likely to follow Turkey's past policies on economics and foreign policy, even if there could be what he called "atmospheric changes" to Ankara's traditionally warm ties to Israel.

Erdogan said on 4 November his party could not take a position on Iraq until deliberations at the United Nations are completed. In keeping the previous government's stance, he has said he wants to see a peaceful end to Baghdad's conflict with America.

Cagaptay says the true test of the AKP's secularism will be on social issues, such as possibly banning alcohol in restaurants or allowing women more freedom to wear Muslim head scarves. He says such issues are "emotional and iconic" in Turkey and could spell problems for AKP or even cause an internal split: "If he [Erdogan] does resolve these issues in a way of polarizing the system, it could possibly mean to the secularist camp that he's taking on political Islam, whether or not that is his ambition."

Another problem is what role Erdogan will play. Parris says there could be a shadow power in Ankara that could complicate matters as Turkey faces tricky challenges -- such as possible war in Iraq and reform talks with the International Monetary Fund -- over the next couple of months: "You have a situation where there is a prime minister who is not Tayyip Erdogan, but where Tayyip Erdogan is exercising some influence from behind the curtain. Whom does [U.S. Vice President] Dick Cheney meet when he goes to Ankara next time? He'll see the prime minister; will there be a side meeting with whatever role Tayyip Erdogan is playing?"

The analysts were also asked if an AKP government could provide a useful model -- especially to the U.S. as it pursues a war on terrorism and battle for Muslim hearts and minds -- of moderate Islamic rule to the rest of the Muslim world.

Aliriza says he doesn't believe Turkey has ever or will ever provide a model for other Muslim countries. He says each country must find its own way.

Cagaptay says Turkey could provide a model, but not for the Arab world, whose history is far different from Ankara's: "If I'm looking to countries that are similar, I would look to the west and the north. I would look to the Balkans and Bosnia and Albania. I would look to Russia and look to Central Asia and Kazakhstan, but not in other various areas of the world."

Parris, for his part, says Russia will be taking keen notice of any major changes in Ankara: "There is an assumption in Moscow that this new government means trouble in terms of their Chechen problem. That's something that's going to require very careful handling by the next government, regardless of what they think about it, because they can't ignore Russia as they formulate their foreign policy."

About 25,000 Chechens live in Istanbul and western Turkey, and up to 5 million Turks trace their heritage back to the Caucasus.

Last week, Russia asked Turkey to shut down Chechen foundations operating in the country, saying they were in contact with a group of Chechen militants who took hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater.

Russia has said the militants made telephone calls to groups in Turkey during the siege, and accuses the Chechen foundations of connections with Chechen militants and Al-Qaeda.

Turkey denies the allegations, citing what it calls its long history of fighting terrorism.