Islamic-oriented party is election front-runner in secular Turk

Sunday, November 3, 2002

ANKARA, Turkey -- Showered with carnations and chants of "We love you" at campaign rallies, Turkey's most popular politician, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, led his front-running party into elections today expected to radically remake parliament.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party has its roots in Islamic-oriented political movements, but he and other leaders contend they have changed and are not promoting a religious agenda. Their campaign focused on widespread anger over Turkey's wrenching recession and corruption.

Meanwhile, all the parties in parliament worried about maintaining even a foothold. None of those parties polled above 10 percent, the minimum vote threshold for getting seats in parliament.

The Republicans are a mainstream party, but were not in the last parliament. They have, however, been in earlier ones.

Opinion polls said the party was supported by 30 percent of voters. The left-of-center and secular Republican People's Party, which held no seats in the former parliament, was second with 20 percent support.

'Hiding their intentions'

Mainstream leaders sought to derail Erdogan's party by warning it would try to undermine the foundations of Turkey's pro-Western secular state. They also warned of tensions between a Justice government and the military, which regards itself as the guardian of secularism and ousted the last government led by an Islamic party.

"There are parties that are hiding their intentions," Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Thursday. The Justice party "is first in this respect," he said.

Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, can't serve in parliament because of a brief stint in jail in 1999 for reading what was deemed a religiously inflammatory poem. A court also is considering whether to outlaw Erdogan's party because he wouldn't step down as leader, but no ruling is expected soon.

But with 2 million people unemployed in the worst economic crisis in four decades, many Turks were disenchanted with politics as usual and looked for change.

The Justice party was started only last year and has never served in government.

"None of the other parties that came before did anything," said Yunus Tarim, 22, who works in a store selling coal-burning stoves that are used as heaters by Ankara's poor. "We haven't tried this party before."

The Justice party emphasizes social justice and conservative values, and its leaders did not mention religion in their speeches. They also voiced support for Turkey's drive to get into the European Union.

"We are not making religiously oriented propaganda," Erdogan said in an interview at his party office in Ankara. He sat on a couch beneath a reproduction of a sunflower still-life by Vincent Van Gogh.

Justice party members only half-jokingly call themselves "Muslim Democrats" after the Christian Democrats of Europe. They contend a party with an Islamic flavor that is not radical could be a bridge between Europe and the Middle East at a time when Islamic radicalism is on the rise.

The election comes at a crucial time for Turkey.

Washington is looking to Turkey, a member of NATO that sits next to Iraq, for support in any military campaign aimed at Saddam Hussein's regime.

The United States also sees a secular and democratic Turkey as a role model for other Muslim countries and strongly encouraged Turkey to take its current position as leader of the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

Erdogan, 48, is in many ways a symbol of the successes and failures of political Islam in Turkey.

A former soccer player, he was elected mayor of the nation's biggest city in 1994 as a candidate from the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party. Secularists were angered by Erdogan's ban of alcohol from Istanbul's cafes and the Welfare Party's opposition to joining the European Union.

But even Erdogan's critics say he ran Istanbul well and he earned a reputation for being honest and fighting corruption.

The Welfare Party was forced from national government in 1997 amid pressure from the military and later outlawed by the courts for opposing secularism.

Erdogan was jailed in 1999 for four months for reading a poem that said: "Minarets are our bayonets, domes are our helmets, mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers." A court found the poem incited religious hatred.

After his release, Erdogan helped form the Justice party, gathering reformist members of the Islamic movement who were more focused on social welfare programs than religion.

"Erdogan has seen that the people will not vote for you if you are an Islamist and you attack secularism or are confrontational," said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

At a recent rally in Ankara, Erdogan spoke to supporters for an hour without once mentioning religion.

Standing on a platform wearing a white oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he spoke of the need to help the poor. He promised running water in every home, lower prices for fuel for farmers and more jobs.

The crowd of 15,000 was overwhelmingly male. The few women there almost all wore Islamic-style head scarves, and most stood away from the men.

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