TURKEY : Islamic Party Pins Hopes on Stalemate in Upcoming Vote

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn't quite an endorsement from the man in the moon, but the pro-Islamic mayor of Istanbul was leaving no angle uncovered as he stirred up a crowd of female activists in the tangled campaign for Sunday's parliamentary elections in Turkey.

"When the astronauts landed on the moon, they heard a strange sound. . . . Later, one of them learned it was the Muslim call to prayer. And so he converted to Islam," Mayor Tayyip Erdogan of the pro-Islamic Welfare Party told his enthusiastic supporters, their heads covered with brightly colored scarves.

Ghostly voices in outer space have, at times, seemed a more credible proposition than the claims and insults of this nation's 1995 parliamentary campaign. No less than 12 rival party leaders are campaigning now in Turkey, a country twice the size of California with 65 million Muslim people who live on the land bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

"Turkey has never seen such a confused or confusing election," said Ilter Turan, political science professor at Istanbul's Koc University.

With parties competing to represent rival issues such as Turkish and Kurdish nationalism, Sunni and Alevi Islam and socialist and free-market philosophies, Turan said, "people really don't know who to vote for."

Publication of opinion polls has been banned here. But results of those that have leaked out show that Turkey's biggest party will be lucky to get a quarter of the vote. The last parliamentary elections in 1991 were won by the now-floundering True Path Party of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, with 27% support.

Strong government should logically be founded on the biggest bloc of voters in Turkey, which is the center-right. It has basically pro-Western, pro-business tendencies and 40% electoral support. But the center-right has been split by a vicious feud between the tenacious Ciller and the Motherland Party of former Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz.

Television debates have been fiery even though the two parties' ideologies are nearly indistinguishable.

"You get so angry!" Ciller, 49, has said with a shake of the head, interrupting Yilmaz, 48.

"Tell her to shut up!" would come a typical reply.

Yilmaz looks to be ahead for now. But the public scraps between him and Ciller have eroded the credibility of both leaders.

That has left an opening for the pro-Islamic Welfare Party of Necmettin Erbakan to become the biggest party, and, therefore, to have the first chance of forming a government. This may be hard, since all the other parties have ruled out joining it in any coalition.

"I used to vote for the Motherland, then I voted for the True Path. All the old parties have messed things up. So I'm going to give Welfare a chance this time," said Huseyin, a tea planter from the Black Sea coast who had come to Istanbul to find work. "It's nothing to do with Islam. It's because I can't make ends meet."

Similar sentiments shot the Welfare Party to power in more than 400 city halls around Turkey in March last year.

But for most Turks, a question mark hovers like the man in the moon over the Welfare Party's slogan of a new "Just Order."

Erbakan, the party's maverick 69-year-old leader, can turn a colorful phrase but is short on details about exactly how Islamic any "Just Order" will be. There is no overt vow to bring in all the harsh strictures of Islamic Sharia law, yet a headline in the party newspaper attacked Turkey's senior state religious official for saying that cutting off the hands of convicted thieves is an outdated form of punishment.

Erbakan threatens to reverse just about every policy of the Turkish republic: Interest-rate-based government borrowing is to be phased out, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member Turkey will stop being a "slave" of the Western camp and somehow become "leader" of a Muslim commonwealth. He has vowed to evict a U.S.-dominated allied force that protects the Kurds of northern Iraq from attack by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Gulay Gokturk, a commentator in Yeni Yuzyil newspaper, said she believes that Turkey can never develop into an Iran, an Algeria or a Saudi Arabia because its society has developed too far since it became a secular republic in 1923.

"Nowadays, they [Welfare Party leaders] have about as much radicalism as a judge's daughter. Why is this? Because we are here a civil society," she wrote.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°