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Turkey: Public Ignoring Lackluster Election Campaign

Istanbul, 6 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With less than two weeks left before Turkey holds early parliamentary and local elections (April 18), the public seems little interested.

The campaign was all but suspended during a nine-day holiday. Rallies are rare, although campaign posters and banners are numerous. The news media have been giving greater attention to the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, which include the use of 11 Turkish fighter jets.

The plight of refugees flowing from Kosovo has been brought home to Turks through news reports in which Turkish-speaking refugees from the Serbian province -- home to 60,000 ethnic Turks -- describe without the need for an interpreter the brutality of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Kosovo refugees have been entering Turkey in recent days.

The election campaign -- marked by blaring music; posters of politicians, some of them forcing a smile; occasional egg-throwing; verbal mudslinging; and often vacuous statements -- pales in contrast to the Balkan crisis.

Turks outside of politics and academia who were queried by our correspondent in recent days have been less than eager to discuss the election campaign. Few were willing to say which party they favor, and many said they had not yet made up their minds how to vote.

A young Istanbul businessman complains that none of the party leaders have any credibility.

An Istanbul taxi driver would only say that deciding which party to vote for this time is a very difficult decision.

In Adana -- Turkey's fourth-largest city -- sheep trader Celal Aktas from Agri near the Armenian border, when asked if there is any party he identifies with, said "the party of bread," suggesting that making ends meet is all that counts. He added that he is not pleased with any party. In his words, "they all have their programs, but they are not serving the people."

Similarly, an ethnic Kurdish sheep trader from Sanliurfa who declined to give his name says "right now, we are trying to earn our bread and are not worrying about the elections."

But Isa -- an Alevite Muslim priest (hodja) in an ethnic Arab village (Aknehir) near the Syrian border -- said he would vote for the now marginal Republican People's Party (CHP), the party of the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.

"I'm happy with what I have, but I am anxious about what the future might bring. What we want is freedom and honesty in the courts. The Koran insists on justice. So what we need is justice. That's all."

The three-and-half years since the last parliamentary elections have been a tumultuous time politically for Turkey. It has been marked by unstable governments and a parliament where the party affiliation of lawmakers changes on a whim and where extraordinarily few laws are being promulgated. There is a sense among many voters, as well as analysts, that the country's politicians have frittered away their time, preferring short-term personal gain to working for the country's future welfare.

Moreover, ideological differences between Turkey's mainstream political parties have been fading for years, further hampering voters' abilities to differentiate between them. The two main divisions that have not been overcome are the Kurdish issue, which unites all mainstream parties against the persecuted Kurdish-oriented People's Democracy Party (HADEP), and Islamism, which pits the Islamist Virtue Party against the other parties and the military.

Bosphorus University Sociology Professor Nilufer Gole says this year's campaign is not based on issues.

"The climate is not very passionate, but at the same time we can say it is not politically very polarized. So this is maybe a very positive thing because there is very tough competition going on among the candidates and among the political parties."

Gole says that until now every general election has resulted in a further opening up of the system because, as she puts it, "people voted for democracy." This time, she says it is unclear what most people will be voting for.

"This time I don't know what will be the meaning of the vote exactly. Would it be a vote for democracy, for instance? Would it be a vote for more Islamism, for more nationalism? What is it? More clean politics?"

Gole said that a vote for clean politics would boost the current caretaker prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, leader of the Democratic Left Party (DSP).

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