Turkish poll is test of faith

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The Independent Online
"GOD HELP US if the Islamists win again," said Ahmet Demir as he queued to cast his vote in Turkey's elections yesterday. "But if it comes to that, at least we have the army."

Turkey's secular establishment looked set for another showdown with political Islam as voters flocked to the polls yesterday. The Islamist Virtue Party and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's leftist party were believed to be running neck and neck as voting began.

"Turkey cannot tolerate living through chaos again," wrote the mass circulation newspaper Sabah. Turkey has seen four governments in as many years as squabbling secular parties tried to unite to keep the Islamists out of office.

Virtue's supporters were out in force yesterday. "I hope the election result will reflect God's will," said Said Yultekin, clad in a prayer cap and robes which are illegal in Turkey. "Let's see who will dare to keep us from power after the people's votes make us the biggest party," Virtue leader Recai Kutan said at his final election rally.

But a Virtue administration is unlikely. The Islamists won the most votes in the last election, but were forced from government by the military.

Its streets draped with colourful party banners, Turkey has the trappings of full democracy. But in a country where television news shows the army chief of staff casting his vote, it is the generals who hold the real power. The military is determined to protect Turkey's secular constitution, and has prompted a fierce crackdown on political Islam.

Prominent Islamists have been jailed, and Virtue's predecessor, the Welfare Party, has been closed by the courts. At one point tanks were sent on to the streets of a Virtue stronghold. Opinion polls regularly show most Turks support the generals' interference with politics. Turnout was reported to be unexpectedly high yesterday after a lacklustre campaign. Voters waited for up to an hour at some polling stations. With no party likely to win a majority, Mr Ecevit looked favourite to lead a coalition. His Democratic Left Party, which had held few seats in parliament, has mounted the surprise electoral challenge to the Islamists.

Mr Ecevit has been riding a wave of popularity ever since the Kurdish leader AbdullahOcalan was captured shortly after he became caretaker Prime Minister. He is also attracting voters tired of the endless corruption scandals tainting other secular leaders.