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2002 In Review: Turks Bring Moderate Islamic Party To Power Amid Hopes Of Political Renewal

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The year 2002 in Turkey saw the expulsion of an entire generation of political leaders whom the population blames for decades of mismanagement that have thrown the country into the worst economic crisis since the end of World War II. The undisputable, yet disproportionate, victory of the moderate Islamic AK Party also marked the end of 15 years of instable ruling coalitions. Hope of recovery is high now in Turkey, but the new leadership faces a challenging agenda. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch takes a look at the momentous developments that changed the face of Turkey this year.

Prague, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Addressing fellow party members in Turkey's newly elected parliament, Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month (19 November) hailed the advent of a new era in Turkish politics. "Today is a historic day for Turkey," the 48-year-old moderate Islamic leader said amid applause from the floor.

Reminding lawmakers that they are accountable to their constituencies, Erdogan -- former greater Istanbul mayor -- said they should get to work as soon as possible to rebuild Turkey's economy, shattered by a two-year-old economic crisis. Alluding to widespread truancy in previous assemblies, he said he expected to see no vacant seats during parliamentary sessions.

"You should be aware that the nation is watching [your seats] closely on [television] screens. Should you forget this, we would have to pay the price, [the nation] would have us pay the price. This is the people's right, and this is most natural. As a country, we, in this period of financial straits, have to alleviate our [economic] losses and enter growth as soon as possible. Mind you, don't tell yourselves: 'We bear no responsibility.' Perhaps we had the right to tell this to ourselves in the past, but we no longer have it."

Erdogan also blamed previous legislatures for turning a blind eye to the needs of Turkey's 68 million-strong population. "You are deputies. Moreover, you are the people. This is the reason why you are here, and this is the reason why those who could not meet the demands and wishes of the people do not belong in here. "

A few weeks earlier, on 3 November, Erdogan's 15-month-old Adalet ve Kalkinma (Justice and Development) Party (AKP), had won a landslide victory in early legislative polls, clearing the way for the first single-party government in 15 years.

AK captured 362 out of 550 parliamentary seats, only a few seats short of the two-thirds absolute majority that would allow it to amend the constitution without a referendum. Another 177 seats went to the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's oldest political formation, and eight to independent candidates. Elections were declared void in three districts of the eastern Anatolian Siirt Province.

None of the 16 other parties contending in the polls managed to overcome the 10 percent threshold required for representation in the legislature. The election saw the expulsion of what is traditionally referred to as the "old guard" of Turkish politics, which voters hold responsible for the country's worst economic recession since 1945.

Speaking to reporters even before the final results of the vote were made public, outgoing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit -- whose repeated absences from office due to health problems triggered the decision to call early polls -- bitterly acknowledged the failure of his team. "Our coalition partners agreed on having elections for today instead of April 2004. It was a great mistake. This practically amounted to [political] suicide."

Voters not only refused to renew their confidence in Ecevit's Democratic Left Party and its two coalition partners, they also disowned those political groups that had presided over the country's destiny for the past 20 years or so. Most heavyweights of Turkish politics -- including the 77-year-old Ecevit himself -- have since relinquished the leadership of their respective parties.

Traditionally, the president names the chairman of the leading party in the legislature as prime minister. Erdogan was barred from standing for parliament because of a 1998 conviction for alleged religious sedition and was thus ineligible for premiership.

Yet, AKP lawmakers have lifted the constitutional ban on their leader, a move that was supported by the opposition. If the changes are approved by President Ahmed Necdet Sezer, Erdogan could contest the by-elections in Siirt, probably in February, and, if victorious, could become prime minister soon after.

The new cabinet of 24 members -- 10 fewer than Ecevit's -- is headed by AKP Deputy Chairman Abdullah Gul, a 52-year-old economist and a former state minister in charge of foreign affairs. The new prime minister, a Western-educated man fluent in English and who has served as a deputy in the last three parliaments, has officially distanced himself from the rhetoric of the conservative Islamist parties he belonged to in the past, as well as from any form of political radicalism.

Without disowning their Islamic roots, AKP leaders claim they should be regarded as a Turkish variant of Western Europe's Christian Democrats. They have also vowed to maintain ties with the International Monetary Fund, Ankara's main sponsor, and continue economic liberalization.

Turkey's staunchest secularists, however, accuse AKP of having a hidden agenda and of being a threat to the republican principles set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the early 1920s.

Nevertheless, the new leadership has vowed to enhance democracy standards and curb human rights abuses in order to boost Turkey's chances of joining the European Union.

Although Ankara applied for EU membership in 1987, it was granted candidate status only three years ago -- a delay mainly due to Brussels's concerns over repeated human rights violations. Since then, Turkey has passed constitutional reforms and legislation, ended 15 years of emergency rule in the separatist, mainly Kurdish, southeastern provinces, and taken other measures aimed at satisfying the demands of the EU.

Addressing parliament a month ago (23 November), Gul reiterated his commitment to continue with much-needed political and economic reforms. He said the time had come to replace the 20-year-old restrictive constitution adopted in the wake of the 1980 military coup. "We are going to prepare a new constitution which will promote freedom and participation [of all members of society] to replace the one that is now in force and constrains our country. Our new constitution will have a strong social legacy. It will conform to international standards, first of all those of the EU. Holding individual rights and freedoms as superior principles and being based on pluralist and participatory democracy, it will convey the idea of a state built on democracy and the rule of law."

Despite strong support from the United States and Britain -- which see NATO ally Turkey as a key element in a possible military attack on Iraq -- the EU enlargement summit held last week (12-13 December) in Copenhagen fell short of setting a date for accession talks with Ankara. EU leaders pledged to open talks aimed at membership only after Turkey demonstrates in a 2004 review further democratic and economic reforms.

Brussels believes that Ankara still has more to do to fulfill the so-called "Copenhagen criteria" required to meet the 15-member bloc's democracy standards.

The government's future will depend in part on the attitude of the army, which considers itself the last bastion against so-called "political Islam." It has already cautioned the new government against any move that could challenge Turkey's secular order.

On 9 December, the army General Staff reportedly warned Gul not to lift a ban on Islamic-style headscarves in state buildings, schools, and universities.

The headscarf issue has been a source of conflict in Turkey since 1925, when Ataturk, in an attempt to solidify the country's secularization, decreed a new dress code that abolished Islamic-style headgear. Tension has grown steadily over the past two decades and culminated three years ago when a female Islamic deputy, Merve Kavakci, was evicted from parliament after attempting to take her oath wearing a head scarf.

Gul -- whose wife covers her head, as does Erdogan's and the spouses of 15 cabinet ministers -- has said he would work to lift constitutional rules banning headscarves in universities, saying they should become "free forums with neither restrictions nor limitations." But he has also vowed not to upset the secular establishment and to seek a "social compromise" on the issue.

Many political analysts believe the headscarf issue will prove a decisive test of AKP's ability to reconcile religious values with secular principles in a country where two-thirds of voters are still attached to laicism.