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Turkish Vote Gives Rise to Speculation

Observers wonder how the leader of an Islamic party who is banned from parliament will try to take power in the secular nation.

November 05, 2002|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

ANKARA, Turkey — The most powerful politician in Turkey grew up selling sesame buns in the dingy alleys of Istanbul.

There's a scrappy defiance to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a kind of streetwise charm that makes his supporters passionate and his enemies vengeful. Friends and foes were visible Sunday when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, swept to power in Turkey's national elections. The party, which has Islamic roots, will control the 550-seat parliament, a rarity in a secular nation accustomed to faltering coalitions.

Erdogan, the architect and front man of the overwhelming victory, is happy.

And unfulfilled.

Erdogan is the leader of the AKP, but he's been banned from serving in parliament because of a 1998 conviction for Islamic sedition. That means the former professional soccer player can't become prime minister. Intrigue is thick in Ankara, the capital, as politicians and analysts speculate how Erdogan -- never one to give up -- will get what he wants.

Many are also wondering which Erdogan will emerge. For many of his 47 years, Erdogan has been a devoted Islamist, quoting the Koran and giving fiery speeches about political Islam. As mayor of Istanbul, he banned alcohol in cafes and opposed Turkey's attempts to join the European Union. He was often quoted as saying: "My frame of reference is Islam."

That endeared him to the clerics but not the generals, protectors of the nation's secular constitution.

Erdogan's AKP never mentions Islam. There is no flicker of religious imagery. The party's success was due to its ability to ride voter anger over the nation's corrupt government. With Turkey's $200-billion national debt and its 20% unemployment rate, the AKP campaigned on pocketbooks, not prayer beads.

That strategy was furthered Monday when Bulent Ecevit, humiliated by the trouncing of his Democratic Left Party, resigned as prime minister. He will stay on as caretaker. The AKP is expected to nominate a prime minister by Wednesday. Although he has no government portfolio, Erdogan is planning to meet the leaders of Greece and other European nations soon.

Turkish secularists and Western countries are curious about the AKP's ultimate agenda. So far, party officials have espoused an eloquent pro-Western platform. Many analysts believe that the AKP will not attempt to extract Turkey from its North Atlantic Treaty Organization commitments or from future action in any United Nations-sanctioned war against Iraq. If it did, Western diplomats say, it would raise the ire of the Turkish military, which in 1997 forced an Islamic party from power.

The military cannot appear too aggressive with the AKP -- that stance could damage Turkey's chances of getting into the European Union and enrage an electorate that gave the AKP a clear mandate. Federal prosecutors have been filing briefs to sideline Erdogan. They want to force him from the AKP leadership, saying that he has too often stirred religion into politics and that he will manipulate the government from the fringes.

"Erdogan will remain fully in control," said Rusen Cakir, an expert on political Islam. "The results of Sunday's election will make it difficult for the judiciary to pursue him because his legitimacy has been endorsed by the Turkish people. Of course, this is Turkey, and anything can happen."

Publicly, U.S. officials insisted that they are not concerned about the party's Islamist roots.

"We look forward to working closely and constructively with the new government," said Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman.

At the same time, one U.S. official acknowledged that the party is wary of a war against Iraq and may not be willing to provide military support if the United States fails to win a U.N. mandate.

Mark R. Parris, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, said the election of the party is "a complicating factor that the [Bush] administration would probably have preferred not to have to deal with at this time."

Nonetheless, he said he believes that Turkey would probably cooperate with the United States if the administration decided to attack Iraq.

The AKP won 34% of the vote, giving it an estimated 362 seats in parliament. The only other party to enter parliament is the Republican People's Party, or CHP, with about 180 seats. Independents have eight seats. The favorite choice for prime minister appears to be the AKP's Abdullah Gul, a charismatic legislator with a shrewd understanding of the West. He is the most qualified, but he may be too strong a force for Erdogan.

Analysts envision two possible scenarios in coming months. In the first, Erdogan would win a court case exonerating him in the sedition case. The AKP would call new elections, and he would run for parliament and subsequently be named prime minister. In the second, the AKP would rally the necessary 367 votes to amend the constitution to allow a person not in parliament, such as Erdogan, to become prime minister.

"The logic says this will happen," said Cuneyt Ulsever, a writer for the daily Hurriyet who has covered Erdogan for 10 years. "He's got the call of the wild. He smells what power means, and he is aware of how to balance that power. He knows to survive he must stay on good terms with the military, business and the secularists. I don't know if his religious beliefs have changed, but he's wise enough not to show them."

Like Turkey itself, Erdogan, with a past steeped in Islam and a future promised to Europe, straddles two worlds. Because Turkey forbids the wearing of Muslim head scarves in public buildings, Erdogan sent his two daughters to Indiana University. Many of the professionals on his staff were educated in the West.

"We are not a party based on religion," he says, miffed at spending time on what the party is not, instead of what it is.

Ulsever, who has known Erdogan for years, said: "This is the first time in the world that we have a chance to marry Islam with liberal democracy."

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