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Court Ruling Puts Turkish Vote in Doubt

Convictions of four Kurdish party leaders on polling fraud are upheld, making the outcome of last year's elections uncertain.

September 30, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — A Turkish appeals court Monday upheld the convictions of four leaders of the country's largest pro-Kurdish party on charges of electoral fraud, raising the specter of early elections and a renewed bout of political and economic instability.

Tuncer Bakirhan, chairman of the Democratic People's Party, known as Dehap, said the ruling was political and aimed at "pushing parties committed to the battle for democracy out of the political sphere."

Party officials have said they would ask the court to overturn the decision, but most observers say it is unlikely to do so.

Attention in this capital is now directed at the country's supreme electoral board, which has the final say on whether parliamentary elections, which took place in November, must be repeated.

Bush administration officials will be watching the outcome closely. Turkey is poised to decide whether to send thousands of troops to help the U.S. police neighboring Iraq.

"New elections would be disastrous for the economy and the entire process of democratization embraced by the [ruling] Justice and Development Party," said a senior European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

He was referring to a series of groundbreaking reforms approved by Turkey's Islamist-rooted government, which swept to power in last year's elections. Calculated to secure the launch of long-awaited talks on Turkey's joining the European Union, the changes include curbing the influence of the country's powerful generals and providing greater rights to its long-repressed 14-million-strong Kurdish minority.

"Today's ruling shows that the reforms continue to remain on paper," the diplomat said.

Some observers believe the court was acting under pressure from hard-liners within the country's rigidly pro-secular military and like-minded officials within the bureaucracy, who make no secret of their distaste for the government because of its Islamist roots.

"The aim, on the one hand, is to derail the EU process, which obviously erodes their influence, and, on the other, to cast a shadow over the legitimacy" of the ruling government, said Hasim Hasimi, a prominent Kurdish politician.

Monday's decision follows a lower court's sentencing in June of Mehmet Abbasoglu and three other top Kurdish politicians to 23 months in jail for forging documents concerning their party, the newly established Dehap.

Under Turkish law, a party must have branches in at least 41 of the country's 81 provinces at least six months before a candidate runs for office. The appeals court ruled that Dehap had only 27 such branches instead of the 63 it claimed.

Analysts say the electoral board now has three options. One is to invalidate the elections that gave the Justice and Development Party almost 35% of the national vote and a firm legislative majority of 363 seats in the 550-seat parliament -- the first single-party government in Turkey in 15 years.

The only other party to clear the 10% national threshold required to hold parliamentary seats was the main opposition, pro-secular Republican People's Party.

Dehap, meanwhile, enjoys strong support in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern provinces and the commercial capital of Istanbul, which has an estimated 2 million Kurds, making it the worlds' largest Kurdish city. But it failed to win parliamentary seats, polling only 6.2%.

Salih Kapusuz, a lawmaker from the ruling party, said he believed the electoral board would reject fresh balloting. If it does not, he predicted, his party will get an even bigger share of the vote. Recent polls indicate the government now enjoys support from more than 40% of the public.

Another option for the board is to nullify the 2 million votes cast for Dehap.

In that case, analysts say, those votes could be redistributed, paving the way for the third runner-up in the election, the conservative True Path Party, to get seats in parliament.

The more likely scenario according to many western and local observers is that the electoral board will steer clear of controversy and uphold the election results. "That, anyway," said Hasimi, the Kurdish lawmaker, "is what reason, democracy and the national interest would dictate."

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