Istanbul and Ankara set to fall to Islamists

SHOULD anyone fear the fact that a pro-Islamic party is the fastest-growing political force in Turkey and seems sure to take power in the capital and biggest city?

Or should Turks rejoice that this political earthquake may at last shake the corrupt, inept and short-sighted establishment into realising that they have to change, fast?

People all over Turkey argued over such questions as they recovered from a 48-hour overdose of gripping television coverage of the results of Sunday's nationwide local elections, which seem likely to give the Islamists control of both Ankara and Istanbul.

Never has there been so much open debate, or such dissatisfaction with a system that, in some cases, can deliver victory to a candidate with as little as 20 per cent of the vote.

'When I think logically, I know it won't make much difference,' said a young architect, capturing the insecurity felt by the 75 per cent of people who did not vote for the (Islamist) Welfare Party in Istanbul. 'But when I think about what it means about where the country is heading, it makes me feel very nervous.'

Some old secularist commentators worry that Turkey is heading towards Algeria's devastating secular-Islamic conflict. Anger has already brought a wave of protests about ballot-box stuffing by the Welfare Party and even a shoot-out in the east that killed five people.

But mayors have little real power, with no control over education, the police or licensing laws. The Welfare Party has done well precisely by concealing any ambitions to impose aspects of Islamic Sharia law. The party's backbone is made up of conservative small- town shopkeepers, not bearded Islamic revolutionaries. Its most successful candidates in Istanbul and Ankara were markedly modern-looking people with well-organised house- to-house canvassing and strict party discipline.

'Why do you always ask me about closing bars and brothels?' complained Istanbul's Tayyip Erdogan, as secularist reporters discovered a strange new love for the city's mostly sordid, mafia-controlled nightclubs. 'Why don't you ask me about buses, rubbish collection, pollution or water?'

The Welfare Party's success is also due to external factors. They have taken over the protest vote after the collapse of Turkey's three left-wing parties to a combined 24 per cent of voter support. In the south- east, a boycott by Kurdish nationalists (up to 50 per cent of the electorate) allowed the Welfare Party to sweep all before them.

The long-term aspect does worry many Turks, however, especially the reaction of Turkey's allies in the West and Nato. Some worry that Turkey's credit lines will be further curtailed, worsening the economic crisis and pushing poor people further into the arms of the Welfare Party.

Turkish security forces are burning down Kurdish villages, forcing thousands to flee, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury said yesterday, on his return from the south- eastern provinces.