Secular Turks Hope to Check Nation's First Islamist Leader
Coalition between Erbakan and Ciller may force moderation
ISTANBUL — Turkey's new Muslim prime minister takes pride in the fact that he has not missed even one of his five daily prayers since he was 13 years old. In his speeches, he frequently refers to Allah. He also regularly invokes Ottoman words and lets admirers kiss his hands.
Necmettin Erbakan stands in stark contrast to Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern-day Turkey.
Since its start 73 years ago as a secular state, Mr. Ataturk's nation developed a Western-style democracy and became a key Western military ally through membership in NATO. More recently, it began to change the Middle East's balance of power through a military pact with Israel.
But political turmoil has gripped Turkey since Mr. Erbakan's Welfare Party won 21 percent of the parliamentary votes in December elections. And the Welfare Party developed a reputation for being efficient and trustworthy, unlike the allegedly corrupt secular parties.
But with the avowedly Muslim Erbakan set to head Turkey's government, all this could change. He has previously pledged to pull out of NATO, annul Turkey's budding relationship with the European Union, and expel US troops in eastern Turkey, who are performing Operation Provide Comfort to protect Iraqi Kurds.
No dramatic change likely
But the enigmatic Erbakan will likely hesitate before bringing such radical change to a country so valued by the West. And his political marriage of convenience with his former arch-enemy, secular leader Tansu Ciller, will require compromise on such consequential issues. Also, Ms. Ciller's True Path Party retained the key Cabinet posts of foreign minister, defense minister, interior, and education. And Erbakan also accepted a two-year rotation arrangement for prime minister, under which Ciller would be the next premier.
To Turks and the nation's allies, Ciller represented Turkey's pro-Western, anti-Islamic stance. The allies, and especially the country's secular elite, consider her alliance with Erbakan traitorous.
"The image of Turkey in the last few years was that of a progressive country led by a Western-looking lady. Now it's going to be the image of a country led by an Islamist," says a Western diplomat.
"A freak will come out of this marriage," said Rifat Serdaroglu, a former Ciller aide and parliamentarian.
Just a few months ago, the woman some Turks call the "Iron Lady" said her guiding principle was "no coalition with the fundamentalists."
But Ciller insists her move will bring much-needed stability to the country, which has been in political turmoil for several months. "I have finally agreed to the union of our two parties in order not to leave the country without a government," she said defending the move.
But critics assert an ulterior motive: an apparent promise by Erbakan's Welfare Party to stop pursuing an investigation into whether Ciller used state funds for her own gain.
The union between the former rivals is not cemented. It must be ratified by a parliamentary vote. Several members of Ciller's True Path Party have resigned. And if the self-styled "rejectionists" can muster 20 votes, the coalition would be denied.
Pact with Israel key issue
Meanwhile, the first signals of a new direction for Turkey's government were mixed.
The 12-page protocol of the new coalition refers to the secular, democratic structure of Turkey and the principles of Ataturk.
On the sensitive Israel-Turkey pact, observers say that Erbakan will not attempt to scrap it, as a Welfare Party spokesman has said.
But he may try to put the accord on hold and slow down the frequent exchanges - such as a planned visit by the Israeli fleet next month.
The guidelines also say the needed readjustments to carry out Turkey's deal with the EU's customs union will be made, but "special attention will be paid to the preservation of Turkey's rights and interests."
Erbakan has closer ties to Syrian and Iranian leaders than Western nations and may strengthen those relations, which have deteriorated recently. He may have Ciller pursue Western ties.
On the US-led Operation Provide Comfort, Erbakan said Friday, "We shall take the views of our valuable commanders and make our decision accordingly." This hints at flexibility, observers say. The Welfare Party has opposed the stationing of foreign troops on Turkish soil.