Turkey and Islamic Politics

IN Turkey's election of Dec. 24, the Welfare Party, with a strong Islamic platform, gained 21 percent of the vote and won the largest number of seats in parliament. Does this mean that Turkish politics will now be dominated by the issue of Islam's role, as is the case in many other Muslim countries?

Similarities exist between the trends in Turkey and, for example, in Pakistan, Egypt, and Algeria, where secular regimes are under challenge. Islamic principles are seen by many in the population as a tempting alternative to the perceived inadequacies of current governments: inefficiency and corruption.

Pro-Islam attitudes are bolstered by Islamist parties' successes in providing social services and emergency relief. In Turkey, mayors from the Welfare Party govern the nation's largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, and are building reputations for honest, efficient administrations. In rhetoric at least, Necmettin Erbakan, the Welfare Party leader, echoes the anti-Western themes of counterparts elsewhere: He opposes NATO, the European Union, and Zionism. Tehran publicly welcomed his election win. Mr. Erbakan has on occasion expressed a nostalgia for Ottoman days, when Turkey's empire stretched from North Africa to Central Asia.

But significant differences exist between Turkey and most other Muslim countries. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, established a strong tradition of secular government. Efforts to undermine that tradition, bolstered at times by Arab money, have so far failed. Coexisting with that tradition is a democratic system that has functioned, albeit with interruptions, for three-quarters of a century. The military has intervened three times; Turkey's Constitution recognizes the armed forces as guardians of the secular state, with the right to intervene when that tradition is threatened.

Whatever direction Turkish politics may now take, the country faces a difficult period. The two center parties - the True Path Party of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller and the Motherland Party of Mesut Yilmaz - each gained 19 percent of the vote. Two minor social-democratic parties received small percentages.

President Suleyman Demirel must now put together a coalition government, but this will be hard. The True Path and Motherland parties are not interested, at least for now, in a coalition with the Welfare Party. Mrs. Ciller's and Mr. Yilmaz's personal rivalry has so far prevented a coalition, even though they have otherwise similar outlooks. Ciller is criticized for her government's inability to tackle severe poverty and inflation. Her government has mixed benefits and brutality in unsuccessful attempts to deal with the unassimilated Kurds. No one predicts a very long life for whatever coalition is formed, leading to the possibility of a further election in which Welfare might make even more-significant gains.

The United States cannot be indifferent to what happens in Turkey, NATO's eastern anchor. Its potential as a Western-oriented influence in the developing states of Central Asia has replaced its importance as a border state of the former Soviet Union. With its historic links, it can be a force for peace or disruption in the former Yugoslavia.

Yet Turkey has always presented the US with dilemmas. Any move to bolster Turkey faces immediate reactions from lobbies representing Greeks and Armenians. The former insist that attention to Greece's needs must balance any help to Turkey. Armenians keep alive memories of Ottoman persecution. Turkey's treatment of the Kurdish minority prompts protests from human rights advocates.

For US policymakers, Turkey is a classic case of balancing human rights concerns and national interests. That dilemma could now be further complicated by a new Turkish orientation toward Islamic countries, such as Iran, seen as adverse to US interests. Turkey has always been the meeting point between East and West. From Ataturk's time, the country has looked West. The strength of the Ataturk tradition suggests that it will continue to do so. But as the result of the Dec. 24 election, that assumption may be under serious challenge for the first time in recent history.

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