Islamists come down to earth bump

Turkey's victorious Welfare Party gets a sobering lesson in realpolitik as its secular rivals gang up to thwart its bid for control
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ON Christmas morning, the green lights of victory for the pro- Islamic Welfare Party lit up like fairy lights the election maps in the Turkish television studios. The country's newest but best-organised political organisation had marched out of the hard plateaux of Anatolia to conquer even the 12 million people of metropolitan Istanbul.

No wonder the flamboyant Welfare Party leader, Necmettin Erbakan, claimed the right to head the next government.

But this was no victory for fundamentalism. Things are never quite what they seem in a country that mixes its Islam with a taste for tinsel, fir trees and Father Christmas.

Turkish taxi drivers hum along to the season's carol-based pop songs commonly played on the radio, in blissful ignorance of their Christian origin. Big cinema ads tout the latest Disney Christmas film. Dressed in regulation red-and-white, "Noel Baba" stalks the big shopping centres, giving out sweets to children who have no idea that he is anything but Turkish.

One academic even made headlines last week with a theory that St Nicholas - some of whose bones still rest near his home town on Turkey's Mediterranean coast - was in fact from an obscure race of ethnic Turks.

Such hybrid ideas are not confined to an elite audience, thanks to the reach of new private radio and television stations. The Welfare Party's dominant old conservatives stand firmly against such innovative tendencies among Turkish Muslims, and perhaps this is one reason why nearly four- fifths of the population did not vote for them.

However you crunch the numbers, it is clear that Turkey has to face up to an end to 73 years of the secular-dominated politics prescribed by the republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk. The Welfare Party has succeeded in virtually ousting the left asspokesman and champion of both the rural and, more surprisingly, the urban poor. But it is also important to put the "Islamic surge" in perspective.

The party topped the poll thanks to a few hundred thousand more votes than the 19.65 and 19.19 per cent garnered by the two runners-up. Ironically, although secular in their approach to government, these two centre-right parties often get support from diverse mainstream Islamic religious sects, movements and brotherhoods, which also happen to oppose the fundamentalist fringe that favours the Welfare Party. The political arithmetic for deciding what government will emerge from the jumble has more to do with Machiavelli than Mohammed.

Mr Erbakan, a 69-year-old veteran possibly seeing his last chance to become prime minister, is in the strongest position, with 158 deputies in a 550-seat parliament. He is followed by acting Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, whose personal charisma and strong-minded reshaping of her conservative True Path Party won her 135 seats.

These two are positioning themselves to gobble up the third-placed Motherland Party, whose dour leader, Mesut Yilmaz, is in a difficult position. Mrs Ciller and Mr Yilmaz met on Wednesday and agreed in principle to work together on a coalition to keep the Islamists out of power, but the stiff smiles and handshakes showed that the mutual dislike and legacy of a muck- raking campaign may not easily wear off.

Mr Yilmaz is vulnerable both for failing to defeat Mrs Ciller in the poll and because some of his conservative deputies have spoken out for a coalition with the Welfare Party. Mr Erbakan is tempting them with honeyed promises of compromise on stated Welfare goals, which include ideas like tax in kind, an interest-rate-free banking system and taking Turkey out of its alliances with Nato and the European Union and into a putative Muslim commonwealth.

Either way, Mrs Ciller may outmanoeuvre Mr Yilmaz. If he does a deal with the Islamists, the liberals in the Motherland could defect to her, making her the undisputed leader of the centre-right and in a good position to win any future election. And if the two are forced by big business and the military into a coalition, as seems more likely, Mrs Ciller has the advantage of more deputies and a better election performance.

That scenario would hand Mr Erbakan and the Welfare Party a free hand to act as the main opposition in 1996, a year of tough state economic cutbacks, likely to help Welfare in constituencies where it has replaced the Turkish left.

The party will no doubt continue to win friends with gifts, party discipline, one-on-one campaigning, a good record in local government, and the way it represents the social aspirations of traditional-minded people whose move from Anatolia to the big cities was clearly picked out on election night by those green studio lights; but it has no monopoly on Islam, which is used by all the centre-right parties, especially Mrs Ciller's.

Welfare has an army of charming, young, hard-working women who happen to reflect their religious beliefs by wearing headscarves. But it also has a hard core of bearded conservatives, who liquidated the progressive Welfare Party women's commission of Istanbul last year and barred this bedrock of women from being parliamentary candidates this year.

Until the party can defuse most Turks' suspicions about this reactionary style of Islam, mainstream commentators, such as Sabah newspaper's Hasan Cemal, are probably right to say that its support has reached an upper plateau. Whether its vote share shrinks or not remains in the so far fumbling hands of Mr Yilmaz and Mrs Ciller.