Turkey set for Islamist hands on helm

'It will sink the country into darkness,' said Tansu Ciller
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A deal is nearly complete that will hand over the biggest share of power yet given to a pro-Islamic party in the 73-year-old history of Turkey's secular republic. Necmettin Erbakan, maverick leader of the Welfare Party, has said he will announce more details on Friday on how he intends to share power with Mesut Yilmaz, head of the centre-right Motherland Party.

Even if the deal goes through, it is unlikely to end the political instability that has been prevalent since the indecisive general elections on 24 December. With the army said to be uncomfortable and accident-prone politicians like President Suleyman Demirel telling his people not to worry, Turks are resigned to a rough ride.

Main Cabinet posts have already been divided up. The resulting leadership formula is complicated and work has not even started on the government programme. According to preliminary reports, Mr Yilmaz will become Prime Minister for the first 10 months, followed by Mr Erbakan for two years, followed by Mr Yilmaz for a year. Then a third person will be chosen from the Welfare Party for the run-up to the next elections.

Posts sensitive to Western opinion of Turkey, a Nato member, will be given to Mr Yilmaz's men, chiefly the foreign ministry, defence, education and the main economic portfolios.

Mr Erbakan has concentrated on the ministries of the interior, justice, agriculture, culture and health.

Turks have become so exhausted watching endless rounds of negotiations that public response has been muted. Only a few Motherland demonstrators burned their membership cards in protest at the way Mr Yilmaz coolly reneged on his main campaign promise not to even talk to Mr Erbakan, let alone form a government with him.

"Things are so messed up that the social democrats couldn't build anything when they were in government. So how can the Islamists destroy anything?" said a contact-lens salesman in Istanbul, where the months of government crisis have had remarkably little effect on day-to-day life.

The pattern set by municipalities run by the Welfare Party implies the Islamists are playing a long game, concentrating on building an image of clean government, improved services and moral rectitude.

But the idea of Mr Erbakan having a say in foreign policy is a chilling one for Turkey's diplomats, who have enough trouble as it is persuading Europe to treat their country with a minimum of respect.

For instance, Ankara has spent much of the past decade building up a case against Syria for backing the Kurdistan Workers' Party guerrillas. But Mr Erbakan cheerfully said this week that accusations of terrorism against Syria, Iran or Libya were simply examples of Western double standards.

And, speaking at a Ramadan dinner being held at the Iranian embassy, Mr Erbakan held up the Islamic revolution in Tehran as a fine example.

Pro-Islamist spokesmen say they would be hard pushed to do worse than the corrupt, ineffective Turkish governments of the 1990s. Others say the pro-Islamists' rise is the gravest betrayal yet of the secular republic set up by Kemal Ataturk and that the Welfare Party will work on the re- Islamification of Turkish society that its members hold so close to their hearts.

"It will sink the country into darkness," said the caretaker Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, who believes that in opposition she will be able to act as the spokeswoman for republican secularism as well as ousting Mr Yilmaz, to become undisputed leader of the centre-right.

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