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Turkey: Moderate Islamic Party's Victory In Polls Looks Inevitable, Despite Ban

Six days ago, Turkey's chief election body barred the country's most popular politician and three other candidates from standing in November's early legislative polls. Liberals in Turkey fear the move could create additional obstacles to Ankara's membership bid into the European Union. But, more significantly, it may miss its intended aim and boost the chances of Turkey's leading Islamic group.

Prague, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Less than 45 days before early legislative polls, Turkey's election officials have made a controversial decision, which many in that country believe is fraught with political consequences.

Turkey's Higher Election Board on 20 September barred Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the moderate Islamic Justice and Progress Party, or AKP, and a front-runner in the 3 November poll, from standing as a candidate.

Also ineligible, the board ruled, were three other stated candidates: former Islamic Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan; pro-Kurdish party leader Murat Bozlak; and Akin Birdal, a prominent human rights activist who has been repeatedly convicted for advocating a peaceful solution to the Kurdish separatist conflict.

In its ruling, the seven-member board said it voted unanimously to bar Bozlak and Birdal from running as chief candidates of the Democratic People's Party, or DEHAP, on charges that they have advocated separatism in the past. The decision to disqualify Erdogan and Erbakan for past antisecular activities was approved by a vote of four to three.

On 24 September, election officials rejected an appeal filed by all four candidates.

Many in Turkey's liberal circles have denounced the board's ruling as undemocratic and warned it could further dampen Ankara's chances of joining the European Union anytime soon.

Turkey's leading business association, TUSIAD, and former Justice Minister Sami Hikmet Turk, among others, have criticized the ban imposed on the four politicians, saying it contradicts recent efforts to harmonize Turkey's legislation with EU democratic standards.

"This is a wrong step before the Copenhagen summit," commented the liberal "Radikal" daily newspaper on 21 September, referring to the EU enlargement meeting due to be held in December in the Danish capital.

A tailender among 13 candidates for entry into the EU, Turkey will not be included among the first enlargement wave. Ankara, however, hopes to join the 15-member bloc by 2010 and expects the Copenhagen summit to set a date for accession talks.

In a bid to show its commitment to democratic standards, Ankara eased restrictions contained in some of the most controversial provisions of its legislation on 6 February. Parliament notably amended Article 312 of Turkey's Penal Code under which Erdogan was convicted in 1998 for Islamic sedition.

In a further attempt to boost Ankara's chances of joining the EU, the Turkish parliament, or Grand National Assembly, hastily voted on a package of human rights reforms on 3 August that includes the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime and greater cultural rights for the country's 12 million-strong Kurdish minority.

Yet, Brussels has said that it will wait to see how these legal changes are implemented before deciding on a date for accession talks with Turkey.

Although two of the four candidates barred from running in the upcoming poll are prominent Kurdish supporters, most Turkish analysts believe the Higher Election Board's decision is aimed first at preventing Islamic leaders Erbakan and Erdogan from entering parliament.

A former leader of the now banned Refah (Welfare) Party, Erbakan was prime minister from mid-1996 through mid-1997, when relentless pressure from the military forced him out of office. Citing alleged antisecular activities, Turkey's Constitutional Court four years ago outlawed Refah and banned Erbakan from politics until 2003.

The 76-year-old leader, who is generally viewed as the mentor of Turkish Islamism, has, despite the ban, presided over the destiny of two other Islamic groups: the Fazilet (Virtue) Party and, after the latter was banned last year by the Constitutional Court, the Felicity (Saadet) Party.

Ignoring the five-year ban imposed on him by secular authorities under the now-amended Penal Code, Erbakan last month announced plans to run in the November poll as an independent candidate from Konya, a central Anatolian city regarded as a stronghold of religious conservatism.

Sami Kohen is a columnist for the "Milliyet" daily newspaper. He told RFE/RL that he shares the view that the ban imposed last week on Islamic leaders might be part of electoral tactics on the part of Turkey's traditional, secular parties. "The intention is quite clear. The intention is not to let Erdogan and Erbakan run, to prevent them from [gaining in] popularity, which they have started to enjoy again, in particular in the case of Erdogan. [AKP] is emerging as the strongest party in the election campaign, so there are chances, of course, that [it] will get a majority in parliament," Kohen said.

A former mayor of Greater Istanbul with no parliamentary experience, the 48-year-old Erdogan is a serious competitor to his more established political rivals, including Erbakan, most of whom have continuously occupied the political stage for the past 15 years or so.

With no clear-cut electoral agenda, but with a political discourse focusing essentially on social welfare for the needy, AKP has largely benefited from the ongoing economic crisis, which has made tens of thousands of workers redundant over the past 19 months. Erdogan's core constituency is said to be Anatolia's desolate heartland, which secured Refah's victory in the 1995 legislative poll.

With 59 legislators in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, AKP is only the fourth-largest group in parliament. But Erdogan's party has been consistently leading opinion polls since its creation 13 months ago.

A survey conducted in August by the Istanbul-based Konda polls institute on behalf of Germany's Deutsche Bank shows that nearly one-quarter of Turkish voters would rather cast their ballot for AKP in an election, thus making Erdogan a likely prime minister.

By comparison, that same survey suggests none of the mainstream political groups would overcome the 10 percent threshold required to win parliamentary seats, the only exception being the Republican People's Party, or CHP, a social democratic formation joined last month by former Economics Minister Kemal Dervis, the architect of Turkey's IMF-backed recovery program.

Dogu Ergil teaches political science at Ankara University. In an interview with our correspondent, he said Erdogan does not so much represent a threat to his rivals as he does to Turkey's ossified state apparatus. Asked whether the charismatic politician represents a threat to mainstream political parties, Ergil said: "No, it is not [so much] the mainstream political parties. It is the central powers, at the core of which lies the bureaucracy. Within these powers, there are the military and civilian bureaucracy and other groups [that] hold the central stage. They are very much scared [of] uncontrolled changes through which they may lose their privileged positions as operators of the state apparatus. These powerful groups are status quo-oriented, and what 'status quo' in Turkey means is to preserve the primacy of state over society, accept the laws and values of state-controlled political traditions, and control changes [with the help] of apparatchiks. These values are called 'values of the republic.' There, there is no place for diversity, there is no civic initiative, and there is a weak civic society vis-a-vis the powerful state apparatus."

Turkey's staunchest secularists, among them the military, have justified the successive bans imposed on Islamic parties over the past 30 years by the need to defend republican values. Not surprisingly, they consider AKP with suspicion and look at Erdogan's steady rise in opinion polls as a threat to the country's national security.

"Milliyet" columnist Kohen said: "There are quite a number of people in Turkey -- among the [political] establishment, the military, the judiciary, bureaucrats and, of course, nationalist parties -- who are very suspicious about [Erdogan]. And not only suspicious, but also quite concerned that, should he become prime minister, he would be a great danger to Turkey."

In 1998, Erdogan was sentenced to 10 months in jail and forced out of office for publicly reciting a poem likening mosques to "barracks," minarets to "bayonets," and believers to "soldiers." Although the verse was a direct quotation from Ziya Gokalp, an ideologue of the Turkish nationalism professed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, Erdogan was convicted of inciting religious hatred. He was released after serving only four months in prison.

Since AKP emerged as a leading political force, Erdogan and other party leaders have distanced themselves from Turkey's Islamic "old guard." Rejecting the Islamic label, they profess a pro-Western policy and claim their support for reforms required to qualify for entry in the EU.

But, as political scientist Ergil pointed out, whether this transformation is genuine remains questionable. "Nothing changes drastically, as you know. Many [AKP] members come from a tradition of mixing religion with politics. But they have [understood] that this is counterproductive. Religious politics in the world has lost momentum, [it] has lost its dynamism. These people have understood that democracy is more important than just religious freedom. [They have understood] that if they want freedom, which they have expressed as religious freedom, they have to accept the whole package of freedoms, [that is], democracy. So we have to believe [them when they say] that they have changed. Not changed, perhaps, but that their priorities, their prioritizing values have changed. I would [personally] accept this, but whether they have really accepted a secular sort of change model and whether they can really accomplish that is something to be seen," Ergil said.

In Ergil's opinion, that the AKP will emerge from the upcoming election as Turkey's leading political group is not in doubt -- if only for the large number of protest votes the party will attract. Therefore, he believes, the Higher Election Board's decision, which he says many in Turkey perceive as a "politically motivated injustice," will most likely backfire and profit Erdogan's formation, whose voting potential could rise further in the coming weeks. "By barring Erdogan, [the] central powers are not going to weaken [AKP] because [AKP] is not his party. [AKP] represents all these peripheral forces [that] oppose a system [that] excludes them, [that] impoverishes them, and [that] diminishes their political rights. In that sense, Erdogan is riding on the tide of the opposition," Ergil said.

Columnist Kohen agrees that the ban might be counterproductive. He also said that even if the Turkish judiciary forces Erdogan to relinquish his party leadership, the Islamic politician will continue to run AKP behind the scenes the way Erbakan has remained the driving force behind Fazilet and Saadet.

In defiant remarks, Erdogan vowed on 21 September to lead his party to victory in the November polls, despite the ban imposed on him by the Higher Election Board. "You can't stop a movement, it is just impossible," he told CNN Turk.