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Turkey: Court Ruling Raises Prospect Of Early Polls, Political Instability

Prospects of political instability are surfacing once again in Turkey after a court ruled on 29 September to uphold sentences against leaders of the country's largest pro-Kurdish party convicted of election fraud. Political parties now await the decision of Turkey's higher election body, which is faced with an unprecedented choice.

Prague, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's Higher Election Board (YSK) has received several petitions demanding that last year's legislative polls be nullified after an appeals court ruled that a pro-Kurdish party forged election documents.

Three separate petitions were filed yesterday by the center-right True Path Party (Dogru Yol Partisi) and two smaller political groups, the far-left Labor Party (Isci Partisi) and the nationalist Youth Party (Genc Partisi). Two private citizens, including retired army Gen. Kalender Kilinc, also filed applications.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, YSK Chairman Tufan Algan said election officials would allow another 24 hours for other petitions to be filed. Asked when a decision should be expected, Algan said, "What is important is to find the most suitable legal solution to [all] material and legal facts [pertaining to this case]. It is not possible for me to say anything on the process. However, we will try to make a decision as quickly as possible."

Election officials are faced with three choices: to decide that the three-month legal deadline to challenge election results has expired and ignore the petitions; rule that new polls are necessary; or order a redistribution of seats in the current legislature.

On 29 September, Turkey's Supreme Court of Appeals upheld prison terms of 23 months against four leaders of the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP) on charges of falsifying documents in order for the party to participate in last year's 3 November legislative elections.

DEHAP, Turkey's largest legal pro-Kurdish party, did not cross the 10-percent threshold necessary to qualify for seats in the legislature. Despite a strong showing in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern areas, the party won only 6.2 percent of the national vote.

Kurdish leaders deny fraud charges brought against DEHAP and say they will appeal against the latest court ruling. Should the application be rejected, they say they will turn to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights.

At a press briefing held 29 September, DEHAP Chairman Tuncer Bakirhan blamed the Turkish judiciary for trying to sideline his party and said the Supreme Court of Appeals' decision was politically motivated: "This decision hurts our conscience, as it hurts the conscience of Turkish public opinion and world public opinion. This decision does not reflect the reality. This decision was made under the influence of politics."

The court ruling has sparked mixed reactions among Turkey's political establishment.

Government spokesman and Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma, or AK) is strong enough to face an election rerun, but warned against the economic risks implied by early legislative polls at a time when Turkey is emerging from a severe recession.

Another AK official, Deputy Chairman Salih Kapusuz, suggested that if the Higher Election Board decides to call new parliamentary elections they take place simultaneously with local elections scheduled for next April.

Turkish media yesterday quoted a statement issued by the AK Central Executive Council saying the party would rather face new elections than lose seats to other political groups in a possible redistribution. The party's top leadership reportedly met yesterday to assess the court ruling against DEHAP. However, AK Chairman and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not attend the meeting.

With 367 elected representatives, AK holds a two-thirds majority in the 550-member Turkish Grand National Assembly.

Only another political formation, the leftist Republican People's Party (CHP) garnered enough votes last November to win parliamentary seats. CHP currently has 175 members in parliament.

Turkish political analysts agree that a cancellation of DEHAP's nearly 2 million votes would, first and foremost, profit the center-right DYP. With only 9.6 percent of the votes in November, DYP missed the threshold required to enter parliament. However, it subsequently won three seats after independent lawmakers joined its ranks.

Should the Higher Election Board decide to strip DEHAP of its votes and order a redistribution, DYP could win up to 70 seats in parliament.

The change would deprive Erdogan's cabinet of its legislative majority, at a time when it needs stability to push crucial legal reforms needed to qualify for entry into the European Union.

The country's two most prominent business groups -- the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAD) and the Islamic-rooted Independent Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (MUSIAD) -- have spoken against holding new elections, saying they could lead to further political and economic instability.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen yesterday expressed veiled concern at the court ruling against DEHAP and the risks of political turmoil it could imply for Turkey.

"We take note and we express hope that the court ruling will not affect the political stability in the country," Verheugen said in Brussels after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

In an obvious attempt to reassure his European interlocutors, Gul expressed confidence that his party would increase its legislative majority in case of early polls.

Although it applied for EU membership in 1987, Turkey was granted candidate status only fours years ago. It hopes to enter into formal entry talks in 2005.

Verheugen said on 29 September that he expects a forthcoming report on Turkish reforms, to be debated in Brussels early next month, will be positive and encouraging.

In a clear warning to election officials today, AK Deputy Chairman Akif Gulle said that, more than ever, Turkey needs "stability, confidence, and tranquility."