Pro-Islam party upsets Turkey's secular elite: Polls show the Welfare Party may take control of Istanbul, writes Hugh Pope

THE DEEPEST fears of Turkey's old secularist elite are official at last, according to opinion polls published this weekend: the pro-Islamic Welfare Party just might upset the rotten applecart of Turkish politics next month to take control of Turkey's biggest city and business capital, Istanbul.

Victory for the Islamists in municipal elections on 27 March is not a foregone conclusion. But an expected substantial rise in their share of the vote will put them in control of municipalities all over the country and may send shock waves through Turkey and its allies in Nato.

Old-fashioned secularists, faithful to the Western principles upon which Kemal Ataturk founded the republic 70 years ago, are deeply worried. Others see it as a more natural development. 'People are already trying to create a provocative atmosphere towards the Welfare Party by recalling the Algeria syndrome,' wrote Cengiz Candar, a left-wing commentator.

While Turkey does have a powerful, secularised general staff that often discharges soldiers with obvious Islamic sympathies, Turkey is not about to become a new Algeria. Mr Candar noted that the Welfare Party is legal and is running cities without any sign of unusual damage.

The polls say only a quarter of Turkey's 60 million people will vote for the Welfare Party. But a first-past- the-post system may give Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Welfare Party, the last laugh at the expense of other party leaders who chortle at his vision of an economic system with no interest rates and a new 'Just Order'.

Mr Erbakan's 20-year-old Islamist political movement has steadily grown in recent years, with its vision of a return to Ottoman-style Islamic society. But that is not the main reason for its success.

For many, a vote for the Welfare Party is a vote against mainstream Turkish parties that have failed to govern efficiently, a barely functioning parliament and widespread corruption. Years of squabbling have split both the right and the left into three parties, none of which is capable of strong government, let alone the coalition led by the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, consisting of her True Path Party and the main social democrat party.

The Islamists tend to be small-town shopkeepers and have successfully created an uncorrupt image. The organisation of their energetic local party offices is unmatched. On the other hand, the Welfare Party enjoys clear fundamentalist backing from Saudi Arabia - a recent scandal involved the donation of places on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca - and some of its officials are vague about implementing Islamic law.

'Four months after we win, headscarves for women will doubtless be the fashion,' said Tayyip Erdogan, the Welfare Party's candidate for Istanbul, a suave former footballer with a taste for hand- made suits and Italian ties. He has promised to close the city's legal brothels and shady bars, although he stops short of a ban on alcohol or raki, the national drink.

But secularists are still in the majority. Three out of four will not vote for the Welfare Party. Demonstrations against the murder of prominent secularists in recent years are always bigger and more broadly based than fundamentalist demonstrations. Secularist activists have also swung into action with a campaign, saying 'Don't complain - get out and vote.'

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