Pro-Islamic Premier Stays in Power, But the Future of Turkey Still Murky

Erbakan boosted by parliament vote after a disastrous trip to Libya

The dramatic political upset that Turkey's Islamist premier staged this week is another in a string of moves in which the grandfatherly Necmettin Erbakan has managed to mollify his critics, confound skeptics, and come out grinning.

And it is an incident the US and Europe eyed closely, concerned that Mr. Erbakan will push the traditionally secular-leaning Turkey into the orbit of Islamic states, most notably Iran.

The drama began with Erbakan's embarrassing trip to Libya in early October, during which strongman Col. Muammar Qaddafi condemned Turkey's handling of its Kurd minority - an excruciatingly sensitive topic for a country that spends as much as $8 billion per year fighting Kurdish rebels.

But it ended with Erbakan strengthening his government by fending off a no-confidence vote brought in the wake of the Libya trip and by recharging his political party, Refah, at a packed convention Sunday.

On the key question of Islam and Turkey's future, he also eased the concern of the military, a powerful bastion of secularism, and began to appease Turkey's troubled NATO allies.

Now, however, there are concerns about the stability of his party. And opposition leader Mesut Yilmaz has vowed to topple Erbakan's coalition government in the weeks ahead over a budget debate.

Still, after the no-confidence vote, which he won 275 to 256, Erbakan proclaimed he would remain in office until 2000 - a significant boast in a country that's had three prime ministers in the last year. "Parliament has renewed its confidence in us," he said.

Successful party

Key to Erbakan's success this week was his pro-Islamic party's convention, held in the capital, Ankara. And key to the convention's success was its surprisingly secular tone. Except for a few bearded men and a group of women delegates wearing head scarves, nothing about the meeting betrayed the party's Islamic roots and past rhetoric. The huge Ataturk Sport Palace was draped in Turkish flags, party banners, and a large portrait of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey.

Noticeably absent were green-and-white Islamic banners. And when a group of members attempted to shout religious slogans, the chairman shut them down, saying no wrong messages should be given at this convention - the first Refah has held since Erbakan came into power nearly four months ago.

Even the oath at the end of the meeting was different. Rather than pledging to work for the liberation of Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Palestine, and Jerusalem, this time delegates swore to help the nation and humanity.

Speaking at the meeting, Erbakan said Refah is the guarantor of secularism and democracy. He turned the tables on Turkey's secular parties by alleging that in the past the term secularism has been used by those advocating atheism and hostility toward religion.

Erbakan also omitted any reference to the Islamist concept of "Just Order" - which among other things would ban interest rates - and his ideas of forming an "Islamic NATO" or an Islamic common market.

Instead, after briefly saying Turkey wants to develop ties with Islamic countries, he stressed that he will start contacts with the US and Europe.

He thus sent positive signals to the West, at a time when Washington and other capitals have expressed concern as to whether Turkey's traditional pro-Western foreign policy is changing - a question asked with particular anxiety after Erbakan's visit to Libya, which the US considers a supporter of terrorism.

Erbakan also managed to dissipate some of the military's uneasiness over Refah. With the memory of two coups in 1960 and 1980 hanging over the country, it was a crucial move. His government is "working hand in hand, day and night, with our heroic Army," he said.

Future problems?

But some conservatives think Erbakan has abandoned his principles in the quest for power. This could cause a long-term split in Refah.

Leading author and critic Abdurrahman Dilipak says the convention had no sign of the Refah ideology. "I don't take this convention seriously," he says. "Otherwise I must accept Erbakan as a supporter of Ataturk and secularism."

"The problem is that with time, people may get used to the new ... Refah and deviate from its real path," wrote Yilmaz Yalciner in the pro-Islam daily Akit.

But in a party known for its discipline, the core is still fully behind Erbakan.

Still, the question remains: Is Erbakan a pragmatist willing to adapt to any political reality or is he truly an Islamist wearing the mask of secularism.

Says Refah watcher Rushen Cakir, "Erbakan needed popular support to form the government. He got it. Now he needs the support of the state establishment. By giving the message that ... there is nothing to worry about, he is now trying to get that support too."

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