Voters In Turkey Expel Leadershıp

Voters In Turkey Expel Leadershıp

04 November 2002

Ian Fisher / The New York Times

Voters angrily drummed Turkey’s incumbents out of office today, choosing by a sound margin a party led by a former Islamicist, who quickly sought to calm fears by emphasizing his support for a moderate, secular Turkey.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 48, the leader of the party, Justice and Development, said tonight that it was firmly committed to joining Europe and to continuing strong relations with the United States.

”Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions,” Mr. Erdogan, who is barred from a formal role in the government, said in an interview here with American reporters. ”We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.”

Though he once opposed joining the European Union, Mr. Erdogan said tonight that his first priority was to begin formal talks to become a member. ”We’re running out of time on E.U. membership,” he said at a news conference.

With 99 percent of the ballots counted, Justice and Development had won 34.2 percent of the vote — enough under Turkey’s election law for it to form a government without a coalition partner.

Its nearest rival, the staunchly secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, won 19.4 percent, and is expected to become the sole opposition party. None of the 16 other parties in contention appeared likely to cross the 10 percent threshold needed to gain seats in Parliament. Under the Turkish system, votes cast for the parties below the 10 percent threshold are distributed among the parties above it. In a measure of voters’ anger at incumbent politicians — especially at corruption and the bad economy — the party of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit barely won 1 percent of the vote.

”I’m not surprised, even though I didn’t expect it to be so low,” said Mr. Ecevit, 77, whose ill health this summer prompted elections two years ahead of schedule. The party that had been running third in the polls, the Youth Party, fell short of the 10 percent threshold.

Though Justice and Development looked set to dominate Parliament, the role of its charismatic leader, Mr. Erdogan (pronounced EHR-doh-han) was far from certain.

He is not permitted to serve as prime minister, nor to hold any government position, because of a 1998 conviction for reading a poem that a court said incited religious hatred. Some experts worry that Turkey will suffer under a weak prime minister — with Mr. Erdogan effectively ruling from behind the scenes — as the nation seeks to begin accession talks with the European Union and the United States ponders an attack in Iraq. Turkey is considered crucial to any American action because of its air bases near the Iraqi border.

Mr. Erdogan declined to say tonight exactly how his party would handle the problem, though he noted that voters were well aware of his ”legal prohibitions.” He suggested that he could remain head of the party, presumably setting policy, while a prime minister tended to the state itself.

”People voted for the party, and the reason behind the existence of the party is its program,” he said in the interview at party headquarters as supporters cheered in a parking lot outside. ”There are similar examples in the world, where the leader of the party is not necessarily the leader of the government. This can work in Turkey as well.”

The ban on his holding office runs out early next year, though he still could not become prime minister because that job must be held by an elected member of Parliament. Moreover, the fate of the party itself is clouded by charges brought by the nation’s chief prosecutor last month that were intended to ban it outright.

The victory tonight gave the party a clear majority of a projected 364 seats in the 550-seat Parliament as well as the highest percentage for any single party in Turkey in at least 20 years. Voting is mandatory in Turkey, and the turnout is usually at least 80 percent.

But some experts believed the party’s hold on power remained tenuous because despite its strong support, around 65 percent of Turkey’s 41 million voters did not cast their ballots for Justice and Development, and because there remain ongoing questions about Mr. Erdogan’s precise role in government and his Islamic past.

”It’s not like they are in an earthquake, but they will never feel very safe,” said Ahmet K. Han, a professor and political analyst at Istanbul Bilgi University, who predicted that the government would not last long.

But Mr. Han also said the election marked a watershed in Turkey’s politics: voters denied seats to all three parties in the current ruling coalition, as well as to any other party that has recently held power.

”This the death of politics in Turkey as we know it,” he said. ”This is a real call for new politics. The population is in real need for a change.”

The sentiment was echoed by Yakup Kepenek, a leading member of the Republican People’s Party, begun by Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923.

”What we would wish the most,” Mr. Kepenek said in an interview tonight, ”is that they should re-establish the lost respect for Turkish politics.”

Though much attention in the campaign focused on Mr. Erdogan’s past as a proponent of political Islam, many voters seemed willing to overlook their concerns. Mr. Erdogan was a popular mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, and many voters said they wanted leadership that was competent, clean and not responsible for the current political mess.

”Tayyip Erdogan was the only man I could trust,” said Murat Oren, a 29-year-old cab driver in Istanbul who voted for Justice and Development. ”The situation we are in right now has nothing to do with religion. It is all the economy.”

But many questions remain about how Mr. Erdogan and his party will get along with the leaders of Turkey’s establishment, especially in the military, which staged three coups in the last 42 years when it felt the state was in danger. In 1997, the army nudged aside the first Islamist government in Turkey, headed by the Welfare Party, and newspapers are full of rumors that the army is eyeing Mr. Erdogan with concern.

Mr. Erdogan and many of his top leaders were members of the Welfare Party and its later incarnations — and, in many ways, the victory tonight marks a new stage for what he says are his evolving political views. As mayor, he opposed joining the European Union and advocated withdrawing from NATO.

In 1998 he was imprisoned for reciting a poem in public that read, in part, ”The mosques are our bayonets, the domes our helmets and the believers our soldiers.” He served four months in prison for that offense, which his supporters quickly point out would probably not be a crime under reforms passed here last summer.

Cuneyd Zapsu, a party leader and businessman, said that most voters believed Mr. Erdogan had changed, and that opposition to him among Turkey’s political elite was based less on fear of Islam than fear of a poor boy who made good. As a boy, Mr. Erdogan sold lemonade to help support his family.

”The whole issue is how somebody like Tayyip Erdogan — who doesn’t know English, who didn’t study abroad, from someplace like the Bronx in New York — how he can say, ‘I’m going to rule you,’ ” Mr. Zapsu said. ”This is the issue in the end. Everybody knows Tayyip Erdogan is not a shariat guy anymore,” he said, referring to Islamic law.

Justice and Development Party leaders said tonight that they expected the first major step toward forming a government would come on Tuesday, when 50 party members would discuss whom they might nominate as prime minister.