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Islamist victory shakes Turkey

By Lee Sustar | November 15, 2002 | Page 5

A SWEEPING victory by an Islamist party has shaken Turkish politics to its foundations and complicated U.S. war preparations against Iraq.

The Justice and Development Party (known as AK by its initials in Turkish) won 34.3 percent of the vote, compared to 19.4 percent for the nationalist Republican People's Party. But because of Turkish laws, parties that failed to get more than 10 percent of the vote--including those that were part of the establishment for decades--will get no seats in the new parliament.

For example, the Democratic Left party of outgoing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit--which had ruled in coalition with a semi-fascist party--got just 1.1 percent of the vote. As a result, AK is just four seats short of what it needs to rewrite Turkey's constitution, which currently places strict limits on the role of Islam in society.

The election comes little more than five years after Turkey's powerful military forced AK's predecessor, the Welfare Party, to surrender the post of prime minister. Welfare and another successor party were subsequently banned for "Islamic fundamentalism."

AK leader Recep Tayip Erdogan is himself banned from holding office, after his conviction in 1998 for reading a supposedly fundamentalist poem.

But since then, a series of events have left Turkey's leading political parties utterly discredited--corruption scandals, the government's inability to provide relief after a devastating earthquake in 1999 and a severe recession that began two years later.

The election results were immediately seized on by European politicians opposed to Turkey's entry into the European Union (EU). Former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing declared that Turkey's entry would mean the "end of Europe"--because its culture was "incompatible."

This racist statement is a diversion from the real reason for his opposition--that Turkey's population of 67 million would make it the second-largest country in the EU after Germany and thus undermine France's clout.

Turkey's horrible record on human rights--in particular, its genocidal war against the Kurdish minority--has been the basis of past objections on EU membership. But Turkey made a series of legal changes to conform with EU standards--and the AK party supports entry into the EU.

AK has also pledged to continue a "structural adjustment" program agreed on with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) earlier this year--even though the plan calls for the elimination of 47,000 jobs in state-owned enterprises and the privatization of others. Yet it was the job losses and economic hardship created by this program that boosted the popularity of AK and its predecessors.

For now, the military--which took power through coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980--is promising to respect the election results. Turkey's previous Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan--a veteran of three previous governments--didn't upset the Turkish military's close ties to Israel, and his attempts to reach out to Islamic countries and to legalize public displays of the Islamic faith upset the military, which forced him to resign in a "soft coup."

While the Islamist parties grew into mass organizations based on their outreach to the urban poor, they increasingly came to represent frustrated small business people and government bureaucrats cut out in the top spots of state-owned companies in the 1960s and 1970--and excluded once again when the country turned toward free-market policies.

Today, Turkish capitalists and the generals have little choice but to rely on AK to try to shore up the government, after a series of strikes and demonstrations against IMF-imposed austerity measures last year.

Although AK was elected on an antiwar platform, it will almost certainly bow to Washington's planned war on Iraq--in exchange for U.S. pressure on the Turkish military to let the government remain in office. Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, has been a pivotal U.S. ally during the Kosovo war and again in Afghanistan.

The expectations of Turkish voters will soon collide with the new government's policies--with effects that may be felt throughout the Middle East and beyond.

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