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Turkey: Election Outcome Very Unpredictable

Istanbul, 6 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As Turkey prepares to vote in April 18 parliamentary elections, it remains far from clear how the major parties will fare.

A seeming lack of enthusiasm among voters and several years of bitter political sparring in Ankara have clouded the picture.

Most observers, including Bosphorus University Sociology Professor Nilufer Gole, say Bulent Ecevit -- the current caretaker prime minister and leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) -- appears to be gaining support:

Observers would say that the 'comer' -- the rising force, the rising star of the coming elections -- is [Bulent] Ecevit [Turkey's caretaker prime minister], the old social democrat, old in the sense that he is now more nationalist than social democrat, because he represents clean politics."

Ecevit has increasingly come to represent what Gole terms the "more urban, settled, middle class, white Turkish vote."

Gole says she does not believe that a vote for Ecevit is a vote for nationalism but rather for someone who is humble and modest and does not represent what she says have been Turkey's last 20 years of greed. Ecevit also gained popularity by being in office when Kurdish insurgent leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in Kenya and returned to Turkey in February. But Gole says Ocalan's capture and detention will cost Ecevit the Kurdish vote.

Any of a variety of scenarios for the election outcome is possible. The most likely is that the Islamist Virtue Party (FP) will gain the largest share of votes as did its now banned predecessor, the Welfare Party (Refah), in the last parliamentary elections, or else tie with Ecevit's DSP. Gole says the real surprise will be if any party polls more than 25 percent of the vote.

Turkey's cities continue to grow at an alarming rate as people move from small towns and villages in search of prosperity. Many of these people -- alienated in their new environment -- have found a sense of common identity with their fellow migrants through shared Muslim values. Virtue has become a rallying point for these people but remains suspect in the eyes of Turkey's military. The armed forces -- with the tacit support of Turkey's European-oriented urban middle class -- fulfills the role of guarantor of Turkey's secular, parliamentary democracy.

Gole suggests that the Islamists may well attract fewer votes than in 1995. If these votes go instead to mainstream political parties, this could be interpreted as a sign that Turkey's new urban masses are upwardly mobile not only economically but politically, as well.

But the Islamists may also lose votes to the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), which advocates Kurdish and other minority issues. HADEP faces legal attempts by Ankara to ban it for its alleged contacts with Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

As Ecevit is a die-hard secularist, it is unlikely that he would even consider forming a government with Virtue. Rather, if given the opportunity he is expected to try to form a coalition with Mesut Yilmaz's Motherland Party (ANAP), as at present. While trying to form a caretaker government late last year, Ecevit studiously avoided bringing Virtue into the discussions. Ecevit -- who will be 74 this year -- insists he is in good health. He said this week he will "continue to serve his country as long as Allah permits."

Vying for third place will be two rival parties that analysts say have lost interest in even trying to be first -- Yilmaz's Motherland and Tansu Ciller's True Path Party (DYP). These two parties compete for the same center-right voters and have spent much of the last three and a half years trying to destroy each other. They appear to be short on vision and motivation, are taking no risks and so are unlikely to get the 19 percent of the vote they each garnered in the December 1995 elections.

Yilmaz and Ciller formed an uneasy coalition after the last elections in a bid to keep the Islamists out of power. But the coalition lasted just four months, collapsing after Yilmaz supported a parliamentary investigation into Ciller's alleged corruption.

Ciller then formed a government with Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan, who promised to suspend the investigation. But once he became prime minister, Erbakan's public statements and his visits to Libya and Iran angered the military. It eventually intervened to get Virtue banned by the Constitutional Court and Erbakan barred from political life for five years. The subsequently formed minority government of Yilmaz, Ecevit and the Republicans fell last year amid corruption allegations against Yilmaz.

Ciller's popularity is believed to be on the rise and unlike the uncharismatic Yilmaz, she can attract a crowd, although not always the one she wants. When she arrived for a rally in the central Anatolian city of Elazig last week, opponents pelted her bus with eggs and rotten tomatoes. Her campaign appears to be above all against her arch rival, Yilmaz. After she said that whichever of the two is defeated by the other in the election should give up the post of party leader, Yilmaz announced he would resign if Motherland fails to beat Ciller's True Path.

Trailing behind Ciller and Yilmaz will be two other parties considered to have a reasonable chance of scraping past the minimum threshold of 10 percent of the vote nationwide required to get into parliament: the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is not currently in parliament. Failure of the Republicans -- founded by the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk -- could be interpreted as a signal that Ataturk's secularist ideals, known as Kemalism, have become outdated and are in need of reform.

The party of southeastern Anatolia's Kurdish and Arab minorities, HADEP, is unlikely to surpass the 10 percent mark nationwide, since its support is concentrated in the emergency zone where Turkey has been fighting the PKK insurrection for nearly 15 years. As the emergency zone is home to only about eight percent of Turkey's population of some 62 million, HADEP would only be able to get into parliament if it can attract votes away from the Islamists outside of the zone. Nevertheless, HADEP is expected to win several key southeastern municipalities in local elections, including Diyarbakir, Van and Mus.

HADEP -- the successor to two banned Kurdish-oriented parties -- faces the likelihood of being outlawed after the elections and so has already established a successor party, the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP). Turkish justice authorities allege HADEP has links to Ocalan's banned Kurdistan People's Party (PKK) and have put 18 leaders on trial. Western diplomats note that HADEP has never publicly criticized the PKK or Ocalan.

In the event the Republicans and or the Nationalists fail to scrape past 10 percent along with HADEP, their ballots, which could total up to 30 percent combined, will then be split up proportionately among the parties that do make it over the threshold -- giving them more seats in parliament, though not a stronger mandate.

Once a new government has been formed, Gole says it will take time for Turkey to tackle human rights in order, as she puts it, "to define Turkey's future." In her words, "we cannot think Turkey is totally separate from the principles which today really make Europe and the world. Unfortunately, Turkey is lagging behind."

"There is no political party which feels that Turkey today needs to make a new step forward in the direction of human rights."

And without a change in Turkey's stance on human rights, its chances of ever joining the European Union will remain on hold.

(Second of two features on Turkey's upcoming general elections.)