Few politicians in Turkey’s recent history have stirred interest as have the secular and pro-Western Ismail Cem and Kemal Dervis. They have resigned from the coalition government of prime minister Bulent Ecevit to contest the elections on November 3 that polls consistently predict will be won by a “suspected Islamist” party, the Justice and Development Party (AK) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a popular former mayor of Istanbul.
Secular Turks and Western politicians, businessmen and the media have exerted pressure on the two men to join forces and form a “liberal” front that can defeat the AK. When Cem, the former foreign minister, resigned in July and set up the “reformist” New Turkey Party, Dervis pledged to join them, although he was still a member of government; later he opted for the Republican Peoples party (CHP), Turkey’s oldest political party, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
Dervis, who was a vice-president of the World Bank before joining the government, justified his change of mind on the grounds that the New Turkey Party was too right-wing and that Deniz Baykal, the CHP leader, was more serious about the need to rally the centre left. He did not, however, explain why he had been able to work so closely with New Turkey’s founders in the cabinet if they were too conservative to join as party leaders.
The fact is that most secular politicians are driven mainly by personal ambition, rather than policy or principle, and that Cem and Dervis are no exception. They find it convenient to profess their attachment to secularism and to the alliance with the US and Europe. In that way they can secure the backing of the Turkish military, the self-appointed protectors of Kemalism, of local and foreign business interests, and of the country’s secular political establishment. It was not, therefore, surprising that Dervis failed to join New Turkey, allying himself instead with a party that he thought more likely to advance his political career.
The New Turkey Party has no infrastructure yet, and has little time to establish it before the elections on November 3. The CHP, by contrast, has an extensive network and is not tainted by association with the government that is responsible for the current economic turmoil. Perhaps because of this, one recent opinion poll put the party in second place after AK, and some analysts believe that Dervis could improve its prospects.
Certainly the opinion polls continue to put the AK in the lead, while most mainstream parties fail to cross the 10 percent barrier for entering parliament. This legal requirement means that many votes will be wasted, putting the AK in a much stronger position. Dervis’s much-trumpeted campaign was to unite the centre-left parties and defeat the “Islamist” AK, which many Turks see as champion of the poor and oppressed. But many politicians are hostile to the idea of a merger under Baykal, the CHP leader, and Dervis’s chances of uniting them while he is a CHP member are slight.
Five years ago Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first “Islamist” prime minister and leader of the Welfare (Refah) Party, was forced to resign for expressing pro-Islamic views. Refah was closed down in January 1988, a decision endorsed by the European Court of Human Rights four years later. Strasbourg ruled by four votes to three that “there had been no violation... of freedom of assembly and association” in the dissolution of Refah, which was accused of anti-secular activities. The court accepted the Turkish argument that Refah had sought to introduce Islamic law, which it contended “was in marked contrast to the values embodied in the European convention”.
On no less than three previous occasions the European court had censured Turkey for closing down leftist or Kurdish parties that commanded less than 0.5 percent of the popular vote; Refah had been the largest party in Turkey, winning elections with 21.4 percent of the vote.
The European Court’s judgement gives the Turkish military and secular political establishment an instrument with which to suppress anti-secular or even remotely pro-Islamic parties and movements. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AK leader, who served under Erbakan, is keen to avoid a similar experience. As a result, the party has vowed to preserve both Turkey’s secular pro-Western orientation and the IMF-backed economic reforms that Dervis was managing before he left the government.
Yet many Turks believe that AK stands for Islamic values, although not for Islamic Revolution. Erdogan will be well advised not to present his party as too secular, otherwise its supporters, who at the moment are keeping it in the lead, will begin to see it as indistinguishable from the secular parties whose corruption and anti-Islamic attitude they have learnt to distrust.
The Americans are pragmatic enough to be assessing the AK’s readiness to cooperate in “fighting terrorism”, in particular keeping Turkish forces in Afghanistan after November 3. At the same time, however, they are supporting efforts to deny it victory. There is a strong belief in Turkey that the elections will be postponed if opinion polls continue to predict victory for the AK.
Turkish law allows such postponement by a simple majority of deputies. If that happens, the chaos the poll was supposed to avoid will be compounded: a prospect that can only increase AK’s popular support.