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Turkey: Elections Bring Hope For Stability

Prague, 19 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Sunday's parliamentary and local elections in Turkey produced several surprises -- and the potential for stabilizing Turkey's rickety political system.

The biggest upset was that the Islamist Virtue Party, which until now had the largest block of seats in parliament, dropped to third behind caretaker Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's (pronounced EDZH-EH-VIT) secularist Democratic Left Party (DSP) and the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

Official, final results will be announced in about two weeks.

Ecevit told Turkish TV last night the election campaign was conducted calmly and that religious exploitation in the campaign was at a very low level. In his words, "these are signs about which our country and nation should be happy." Commenting on the Islamists' poor showing, Ecevit said, "the election campaign has shown a policy based on religious exploitation cannot work in Turkey."

President Suleyman Demirel's comments were similar if more cautious.

"May the results be auspicious for our nation and country. Our nation manifested great maturity. The elections were held in a peaceful manner."

But the Istanbul stock exchange was not so optimistic, dropping five percent in response to uncertainty over what sort of coalition government can be formed.

With more than two thirds of the votes counted, projections show that Ecevit's DSP would have about 135 seats in the 550-seat parliament, or about 21 percent of the vote.

That was expected. Ecevit's reputation as the only politician with a reputation for modesty and an absence of corrupt connections assured him a strong showing.

And although the caretaker prime minister did not use his government's capture of insurgent Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan for political purposes, many voters were likely pleased by recent events.

The ultra-nationalist MHP has won about 130 seats, or 18 percent of the vote, with most of the support apparently coming from former Islamist supporters. The ultra-nationalists failed to get into parliament in the 1995 elections, falling short of the 10-percent threshold.

MHP supporters last night celebrated at a rally in Istanbul chanting "stand Kosovo, we are coming!" They also chanted "down with the PKK" -- the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. Supporters waved the party's red three-crescent flag, based on an Ottoman war banner.

MHP has toned down its foreign policy statements in recent years and differs little in principle from current Turkish policy on supporting Muslims in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire and in advocating closer ties with the Turkic republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The Islamist Virtue party (FP), the successor to the banned Welfare party, won about 109 seats, or 16 percent of the votes. That is down from the 21 percent that its predecessor, the Welfare Party, achieved in 1995 when it came in first in the polling. The reason for the loss of support for the Islamists is likely the party's lack of direction and confusion over who is running the party.

The other losers are the two center-right parties -- Mesut Yilmaz's Motherland party (ANAP) and Tansu Ciller's True Path Party, which tied for fourth place, each winning 13 percent of the vote. The center-left Republican People's Party failed to get re-elected to parliament, with just eight percent of the vote. The loss is symbolic since the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, founded the party.

Traditional left-right ideology has been playing a steadily less significant role in Turkish politics in the past decade. Instead, the parties have largely offered voters various brands of nationalist populism. Ecevit, Yilmaz and Ciller all favor free enterprise.

The Islamists and MHP, despite constitutional bans on mixing politics and religion, remain strongly pro-religion. Ecevit, while trying to form a coalition government last year, said the Islamist Virtue Party was his last choice as a coalition partner. Ecevit's initial post-election comments suggest he may well try to include the ultra-nationalists in a coalition.

And in a sign of readiness to work together, ultra-nationalist leader, Devlet Bahceli told the mass circulation daily Hurriyet today his party's policies are not at all distant to those of Ecevit's DSP. He predicts the new parliament will be able to produce a government of "stability and harmony". MHP has not served in coalition governments since the 1970s.

The daily Hurriyet comments that the surge in support for the ultra-nationalists stems from the ongoing conflict in the southeast between the military and Ocalan's PKK. Another commentary in Hurriyet says the MHP gained votes with its call to hang Ocalan, who is awaiting trial for the deaths of some 30,000 soldiers, police, civilians and insurgents in the 15-year-old rebellion.

Hurriyet and the mainstream daily Cumhurriyet say the nationalists will play a key role in forming a coalition government, either with Ecevit's DSP and Yilmaz's Motherland or else with Motherland and Ciller's True Path.

The surge in support for the nationalists may also reflect widespread frustration with Turkey's relationship with the EU, which has declined to open membership talks with Ankara while inviting Cyprus and many central and East European countries.

As expected, the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HADEP) swept to victory in local elections in the southeast, winning mayoral races in Diyarbakir, Batman, Bingol, Hakkari, Siirt and Sirnak. Ocalan's incarceration has united many Kurds around HADEP, which faces the likelihood of being banned for maintaining close contacts with the PKK. Nationwide, however, HADEP won less than four percent of the vote and remains outside parliament.