Turkish voters face a leap into unknown

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The Independent Online
HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Never has the Turkish electorate had so many political choices as in the run-up to general elections tomorrow, but never have they been so confused about what to do with their vote.

All that anybody knows is that various swings of a couple of percentage points could usher in a pro-Islamist government, a Kurdish nationalist party in parliament, or a new lease of power for Turkey's embattled Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller.

More than 6,000 candidates from 12 parties have criss-crossed the country on sledges, carts, buses, helicopters and planes, offering solutions as diverse as the country itself. The struggle has been magnified as it sucked in the media barons on one side or the other, forcing Turks to buy half- a-dozen newspapers or zap through 15 national and 360 local television channels to get anything like a full picture.

Most remarkable, perhaps, has been the advent of major politicians openly advocating free use of Kurdish and even peace talks with the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Of course, decades of taboos have not disappeared overnight, and right-wing radicals continue to insist the Kurds have no separate ethnic identity.

The biggest ideological conflict is now between the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, a contender to top the poll, and the rest, who defend the secular state philosophy of Turkey's republic, founded 73 years ago.

The Welfare is by far the best- organised, its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, 69, riding high on tight discipline and aided by women campaigners who win votes for their menfolk during millions of visits to homes and chats over glasses of tea and sweetmeats.

It can claim to have managed the 400 towns and cities it runs at least as well as its predecessors and with fewer scandals. One zealot mayor outraged Turks with threats of political bloodshed, but reports of fanaticism are arguably less common than anti-headscarf actions by those the Islamists call the "secularist fundamentalists".

"The Welfare now say if they come to power they will `have a look at relations with the West'. Well, you'd find that much radicalism in a judge's daughter," wrote Gulay Gokturk in Yeni Yuzyil newspaper. "Why is this? Because civil society is here ... the explosion in votes for Welfare is not because the people are becoming fanatics, but because Welfare has softened its fanaticism.''

The party's profile has been raised by a bitter feud that has split the dominant centre-right. Mrs Ciller and her irascible rival, the Motherland Party's leader, Mesut Yilmaz, are fighting to the bitter end with a dirty campaign of televised arguments and smears about ill-gotten gains and secret fundamentalist proclivities.

Turks would like to punish those responsible for the poor government of recent years, their finances ravaged by a decade of inflation now running at 85 per cent; they are tired of the 11-year Kurdish war in the south- east that has killed 18,000 people and of the decline in the quality of civil servants, health care and public education.

But many find it hard to tell whether to blame Mrs Ciller's True Path Party, which took over in a coalition with the Social Democrats in 1991, or the preceding Motherland administ- ration. They also know that a vote against either might land them up with the unknown quantity of a Welfare Party administration.

Many of the 34 million voters say they are postponing their decision until they reach the ballot box. If opinion polls are to be believed, not one of the 12 competing parties is likely to get more than a quarter of the vote.

This means that two, probably three, parties will be forced into coalition. Diplomats believe that will be so hard to arrange that the parties may overrun the 45-day limit on forming a new government, which would bring about new elections.

Whatever combination of parties takes over will face the traditional post-election hangover - the need to rein in the budget deficit, get an IMF-backed austerity programme back on the rails and keep servicing Turkey's heavy debts.

Luckily, most Turks have learned to live with bickering coalition governments and poor central economic management. The new resilience of Turkey's private sector saw the country through a crisis in 1994 that more than halved the value of the Turkish lira and shrunk the economy by 6 per cent.

The economy has bounced back this year with a growth rate of 10 per cent. Ordinary Turks hope that after the election-time tirades of Euro-phobic politicians die down, the 13 December assent by the European Parliament to a customs union with Turkey will stimulate yet more trade and investment.

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