An Islamic party with more than one face


THE Islamist Welfare Party(RP), which won a narrow victory in Turkey's general elections on Christmas Eve, has many faces for the Turks.

Some perceive it as a fundamentalist movement that threatens the secular nature of the Turkish state, a fear reinforced by the rantings of the party's most extremist members, such as the mayor of the Black Sea town of Rize who speaks of a "bloody revolution". Others dismiss it as a marginal movement and find farfetched explanations for its steady rise.

But beyond the stories and rumours that reinforce the negative bias of secular Turks and western governments, there is the reality of a well disciplined political party, which attracts support by doing social work in Turkey's poorer quarters, listens to the woes of those too often ignored by the mainstream politicians and attacks the corruption of the establishment.

Since their election in March 1994 to the municipalities of major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, the party's mayors have also acquired a reputation for honest work and service. The Welfare Party's conservative elders chose not to have women on their electoral lists, but much of the RP's success rests on the shoulders of its female supporters, who are the party's foot soldiers and efficiently canvassed the country prior to the poll. Some of them, well educated and independent women, had been side lined by the secular system for wearing a head scarf, this visible symbol of militant Islam; lawyers were not allowed to plead in court wearing it, students were thrown out of universities.

Attacked on all sides, the Welfare Party has closed ranks, and presents a picture of unity in its struggle for a "just order". Yet insiders say various factions are vying for power inside the party: the "leftists" who believe the party's real constituency is in the slums; the more prosperous "right wingers" - small traders or industrialists who want a more middle class image; the Muslim extremists, who believe a religious order must be imposed come what may; and the young intellectuals, who think Islam can be modernised.

Cementing all these trends is the party leader, Mr Necmettin Erbakan (69), whose suave voice and grandfatherly red cheeks hide a wily politician. His party's recent electoral success is the closest Mr Erbakan has ever been to power. At the head of his previous political organisation, the National Salvation Party, this mechanical engineer who once worked on the diesel ignition system of Leopard tanks had been a minority partner in three coalitions in the 1970s. He was deputy head of government under Mr Bulent Ecevit during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

Arrested and charged with trying to impose a religious regime in Turkey after the 1980 coup, he was acquitted in 1985, but could only resume his political career in 1987. The ground for his return had been prepared by his supporters who had founded the Welfare Party, whose support has grown steadily. Past experience has shown that Mr Erbakan is an opportunist and would give up dreams of "liberating Jerusalem, Bosnia and Chechenya", of abolishing interest rates or forging an Islamic common market to become head of government. Already he is wooing potential coalition partners with "offers they cannot refuse" and is trying to soften his party's image with talk of "compromise".

With only 21.32 per cent of the vote, in a country where democratic institutions are well entrenched, the Welfare Party is hardly in a position to topple the regime. But its victory has shown that a fifth of the electorate is unhappy with the performance of the establishment parties. Many Turks, having reaped no benefit from their country's rapid development, are looking for alternatives for a more just society.