Party Tied To Islam Wins Big In Turkey

Party Tied To Islam Wins Big In Turkey

04 November 2002

Karl Vick / The Washington Post

A party with roots in political Islam won a decisive victory in Turkey’s national election today, presenting a possible challenge to a long secular tradition in a key strategic ally of the United States that Washington holds up as a democratic example to the Muslim world.

The Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish initials AKP, drew more than one-third of the vote, a plurality that would allow it to govern without a partner. The only other contender assured of winning seats in parliament was the Republican People’s Party, created by Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish state on rigidly secular terms. It garnered about 19 percent of the vote, more than the 10 percent required for representation in parliament.

Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia, has looked to the West since it was founded in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the ruler of the Muslim east for 500 years. As a member of NATO, it was a crucial U.S. ally in the Cold War, and it would be asked to play a key role in any new military campaign against neighboring Iraq.

Yet the meddling role the military has played in politics, especially against religious parties, has damaged Turkey’s dimming prospects for membership in the European Union, an effort the country has pursued with increasing vigor since its economy nearly collapsed early last year.

AKP capitalized on public outrage over the economy, analysts said. Throughout the two-month campaign, it presented an image of moderation and responsibility, and sought to distance itself from a boldly pro-Islamic government that was forced from power in 1997, largely by the senior officers that Turkey’s constitution designates as guardians of Ataturk’s vision.

Tonight, in a series of interviews that aides said were calculated to calm fears of radical change, the AKP’s chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, vowed not to interfere with the “lifestyle” of Turks, 98 percent of whom are Muslim, but who show widely varying degrees of piety. As mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s, Erdogan had banned alcohol in municipal restaurants.

He said tonight that the top priority of the new Turkish government would be to persuade the European Union to accept Turkey as a member, a widely shared goal in this largely low-income nation of 67 million. But the chances of reaching that goal have become increasingly remote. The last chance for admission for at least a decade, the EU Copenhagen summit, is scheduled to take place next month.

“First things first,” Erdogan said, vowing to dispatch envoys to European capitals to deal with EU objections to Turkey’s record on human rights, as well as concerns about admitting a Muslim nation to what some call a “Christian club.”

The moves underscored AKP’s insistence that it would keep Turkey pointed firmly toward the West.

In an interview with American correspondents, Erdogan voiced the reservations held by many Turks about a possible U.S. military campaign in neighboring Iraq. But Erdogan also called the United States “a natural ally of Turkey” and vowed that “our relationship will continue increasing.”

“We have to be cool right now,” said Cuneyd Zapsu, an AKP founding member and Erdogan aide. “We don’t want big tension.”

[Early Monday, Erdogan said Turkey would abide by U.N. resolutions regarding Iraq, the Reuters news agency reported. “We are bound by the U.N.’s decision, we cannot say anything before seeing the U.N.’s attitude towards the issue,” he said in a news conference in the capital, Ankara.

[“We don’t want blood, tears and death. We hope that the issue will be solved peacefully.”]

Political analysts applauded what they said was the party’s moderate stance, after a campaign marked by state efforts to derail AKP as a party and remove the popular Erdogan as its chairman.

“I think there are some good signals,” said Sedat Ergin, a prominent columnist. “He tried to give reassurances to the secular segments of the society.”

Ilter Turkmen, a former foreign minister, said many voters would be surprised by AKP’s showing, which Ergin termed “bigger than we all expected.”

“But they’re making a very determined effort,” Turkmen said. “There is the possibility that this party will be for the first time a liberal Islamic party, which would be positive. It’s possible.”

He defined a liberal Islamic party as resembling “Christian Democrats — they have some religious references, but there’s nothing specifically religious in their policies.”

“We see secularism as the guarantee of all the faiths,” Erdogan said.

But Erdogan’s own history of mixing politics and religion has created a unique problem: He cannot serve as prime minister.

AKP was founded by self-described “moderate” veterans of a religious movement organized first as the Welfare Party and later the Virtue Party. Both were eventually banned for violating Turkey’s secular constitution, and several leaders were jailed for “Islamic sedition.”

Erdogan, who was popular as mayor of Istanbul, served a four-month prison term in 1999. The sentence also carried a lifetime ban on holding political office.

During the campaign, AKP skirted the ban by pitching Erdogan as the party’s spokesman. His picture appeared on buses and posters. At rallies, he railed against the political establishment that many blame for the economic crisis that has put hundreds of thousands out of work and that tried to ban the AKP. And as AKP chairman, Erdogan’s name appeared on ballots directly below the party’s logo.

But because of the ban, Erdogan cannot take the logical next step of becoming Turkey’s prime minister.

Yet no obvious second choice emerged during the campaign. AKP officials said the party’s 50-member governing board would meet Tuesday to decide on a name to forward to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who formally appoints the prime minister.

That appointment, while fulfilling the letter of the law, also holds great potential for confusion, observers said. The prime minister, who is presented to the world as the country’s head of state, may not be the Turkey’s most powerful figure.

“This will be a test for Erdogan, because he might be tempted to choose a weak figure in order to manage the country from behind the scenes,” said Turkmen, the former foreign minister.

The next prime minister will also sit on the National Security Council, a mix of elected officials and military leaders, including the powerful chief of general staff. The council, which meets in secret, makes crucial decisions on all affairs, including the future of elected governments, as it did on Feb. 28, 1997, when it forced the resignation of Turkey’s only openly Islamist prime minister.

Like the rest of Turkey’s political establishment, senior generals are also said to be deeply skeptical of Erdogan’s party. “I am worried about the AKP coming to power,” said outgoing prime minister Bulent Ecevit, whose discredited party drew less than 5 percent of the vote.

The new chief of general staff refrained from comment during the campaign, and was scheduled to depart Monday for a visit to the United States, a move one analyst called “a good coincidence.”

Researcher Yesim Borg contributed to this report.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, stressed a desire for close relations with the United States after a decisive election victory.