Islamic leader takes the reins in Turkey

Hugh Pope in Istanbul reports on the achievement of 'a sort of stability' in a country grown used to political chaos
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The Independent Online
The maverick pro-Islamic leader Necmettin Erbakan took power at the head of a new coalition government in Turkey yesterday, signalling an era likely to further dilute the strident Westernising secularism with which Kemal Ataturk founded the republic seven decades ago.

"Peace be with you. I have good news: a new government," a beaming Prime Minister Erbakan said after President Suleyman Demirel approved his Cabinet.

Erbakan has opposed most things that defined the Turkey after World War Two: Nato membership, a customs union with Europe, balanced ties between Israel and the Arab states and a mission to Westernise this Islamic nation of 65 million people.

Yet even Turkish secularists are doing little more than tut-tutting Erbakan's slow march to power. Since Turkey's last real government collapsed nine months ago, public opinion has become punch-drunk with unprincipled politicking, revelations of public corruption and a new upsurge in nationalist sentiment on both sides of the Kurdish conflict.

"People have cried wolf so often we have become immune to panic. There has been so much chaos, any sort of stability is welcome," said one diplomat in the Turkish capital, Ankara.

Most Turks know the Welfare Party does not bear much comparison to the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia or the ideological ruthlessness of Iran. Neither is there a sense that the its agenda is revolutionary, since the supposedly 'secular' Turkish republican system has gone a long way in the past decade towards a new synthesis with its Islamic and Ottoman past.

Mr Erbakan has already signalled that he will compromise on some foreign policy issues and has said he might sacrifice his opposition to a customs union with Europe and the 'Operation Provide Comfort' force protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq.

The Welfare Party's room for manoeuvre is also limited because it only polled 21 per cent of the vote when it came top of general elections last December, giving it just 158 of the 550 parliamentary seats.

Mr Erbakan has promised not to interfere with the way people eat, drink or dress. On the evidence of the many municipalities managed by his party since 1994, there should be no reason to disbelieve him. But, given his occasionally wildly anti-Semitic and pro-Islamic remarks, many Turks remain suspicious.

The 70-year-old Erbakan had an uneven record as a deputy prime minister in three governments in the troubled 1970s. But he finally achieved his ambition to be prime minister yesterday when True Path Party leader Tansu Ciller made the highly controversial decision to throw her lot in with him. She becomes Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

Prime Minister from 1993 until March this year, Mrs Ciller may have felt she had no alternative. In theory, her party has shared power since March in a government headed by the Motherland Party's Mesut Yilmaz. But their personal hatred meant that virtually nothing was achieved, another factor that has eased public resistance to Mr Erbakan's taking power.

Behind the froth of their political squabbling, Turkey's powerful institutions have stepped in to rule instead. The military went ahead to sign a co- operation agreement with Israel in February.

Despite Turkish denials, the accord appears to be strongly targeted at Syria. Mr Erbakan, however, professes great love for Syria and the Arab world and a dislike of American imperialism, so it seems likely there will be a cooling-off period in official aspects of the Israeli relationship.

He will, however, be in complete accord with pursuing the military's 12-year-old fight with the Kurdistan Workers' Party.