YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Politician Works to Lead Turkey

Banned head of party with Islamic roots appears set on clearing hurdles to premiership.

November 12, 2002|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — Setting the stage for a confrontation with this nation's pro-secular president, the leader of an Islamic-rooted party that won recent elections suggested Monday that he would seek to surmount legal obstacles and become the next prime minister.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was banned from running in the Nov. 3 election because of a 1998 conviction on sedition charges. However, he pointed out to reporters here that parliament could amend the constitution, allowing him to assume the premiership of this officially secular but predominantly Muslim nation of 66 million.

"Certain anti-democratic situations will be remedied," Erdogan said. "It is the duty of the political establishment to overcome a problem that contradicts the national will."

Erdogan's remarks came a day after President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former judge, made clear his opposition to any moves to tamper with the constitution. "Rather than politicizing the law, politics should be conducted in conformity with the law," Sezer said at an official function here that also was attended by Erdogan.

Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk, who imposed a secular and European-oriented vision on the Muslim nation. The Turkish military has guarded that policy ever since.

The AKP, which during the campaign carefully avoided mention of Islam and focused instead on pocketbook issues, is poised to form Turkey's first single-party government since 1987 after winning control of the 550-seat parliament. With 363 seats, it is four short of a two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution without having to resort to a referendum. But the party is counting on support from nine independents.

Erdogan was convicted in 1998 of religious sedition after publicly reciting a poem the government regards as radical. Several scenarios are being debated by AKP leaders to clear the way for him to become prime minister. One plan would involve amending a law under which only elected members of parliament qualify for the post.

Another idea would be to wait until his ban on holding public office expires in March and then call by-elections, in which Erdogan would win a seat in parliament. But that in turn would require amending another article of the constitution, which specifies that a person convicted of carrying out or promoting "ideological" or "anarchic" offenses be barred from the legislative body.

In either case, the AKP needs to agree on a candidate within its ranks to fill the premiership for at least the short term. The most widely touted choice is the party's deputy chairman, Abdullah Gul, who is popular with the rank and file.

The AKP is expected to submit a name soon after parliament convenes Thursday.

Erdogan began his political career in the overtly pro-Islamic Welfare Party, which was forced from power by the military in 1997. He has since disavowed his Islamist past. Today he insists that he is a "conservative democrat" who does not believe in mixing religion with politics.

Since the AKP's victory, Erdogan has been behaving like the prime minister and is being treated with respect by Western leaders, who have been buoyed by his pledges to accelerate reforms that could secure Turkey's membership in the European Union. He is set to begin a tour of Europe Wednesday to lobby leaders on EU accession.

"It's Erdogan's personal popularity that steered the AKP to power," said Bulent Aliriza, a prominent Turkey specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "His popular mandate cannot be contested. I believe a compromise [on the prime minister post] will be struck in the coming days, because that is what the Turkish people expect and demand."

Los Angeles Times Articles