Young Turks lay claim to a leadership role: A new generation wants to rise above present stagnation and old traditions. Hugh Pope reports from Istanbul

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The Independent Online
A NEW movement is stirring in the grassroots of Turkish politics. At last, a new generation is staking its claim to live in a progressive, tolerant country and rejecting years of backsliding towards militarism, crude nationalism and gross abuses of human rights.

At its head is the New Democracy Movement, the biggest of some 40 clubs and associations thrown up in Istanbul alone by a recent ferment of political activism. The snowballing of such civic associations, as well as Islamist and ultra-nationalist groups, is little short of revolutionary in a republic long dominated by the state.

At a typical recent evening meeting of the New Democracy Movement, debate focused on long-suppressed questions such as: Why the torture? What to do about the Kurdish war? How to deal with the Islamic upsurge? And what can overcome the ideological and financial bankruptcy of the Turkish state?

The 200 people present, among the best and brightest of Turkey's 30-something generation, were determined to get beyond party politics. All wanted to find a way out of a system lost in a devil's triangle of Islamists nostalgic for the old Ottoman Empire, resurgent Kurdish radicals, and Turkish nationalist secularists who worship the statist ideology of Kemalism, attributed to the republic's founder, Kemal Ataturk.

The New Democracy Movement's headquarters gave little clue to its growing influence, hidden in a developing Istanbul suburb of half- finished concrete buildings, shiny new foreign cars, messy back-streets and hectic street- life. In an anonymous chair at the back of the low-key, beige meeting room sat the movement's spokesman, Cem Boyner, the rich son of a family of textile manufacturers who is rapidly finding his feet as the most charismatic figure in Turkish politics today.

The movement is now the only audible Turkish voice demanding a change of policy on the Kurdish insurgency, a courageous stance as the state harshly represses Kurdish nationalists. Hundreds of people have been murdered by death squads since 1991.

Ironically, however, public access to political news and debate has greatly increased in the past two years. A wide variety of views is fed to Turkey's 60 million people by expanding private television networks. Around March's nationwide local elections, unprecedented and heated television debates ran into the small hours.

The success in those elections of the pro-Islamist Welfare Party did more than anything to awaken Turkey's silent majority, especially the upper classes, closeted behind the walls of their compounds of villas and luxury flats. Blind secularism and lapel pins showing Ataturk's profile were no longer enough.

The New Democracy Movement's 6,000 members include many women among the young owners of successful businesses, economists, professors and managers. They are the Ozal generation, formed by the more colourful, enterprising and open-minded Turkey that Turgut Ozal presided over until his death last year.

Some accuse them of being over-idealistic, cocktail-party democrats. But Mr Boyner and his wife, Umit, have moved from the society pages of Turkish glossy magazines into the political columns.

'We need a Turkish perestroika. We have to decide if we want to be in the first league of countries or not,' Mr Boyner told a spellbound audience of 500 civic leaders in the deeply conservative eastern provincial town of Tokat, where only 17 years ago politicians bringing progressive ideas were met with a hail of stones.

The New Democracy Movement plans to hatch out into a formal political party in the autumn, and rightly prides itself on its collegiate, grassroots style. Organisation may well be be completed in time to contest the 1996 general elections. By then the other main force in the field is likely to be the Welfare Party's Islamists, who also say they are breaking the mould of Turkey's 'system' and are also in undoubted close touch with ordinary Turks.

'Will the Welfare Party come to power in 1996?' asked a worried young owner of an import-export agency as Tinaz Titiz, Mr Ozal's former tourism minister, wound up an evening debate. Mr Titiz smiled. 'I cannot say,' he said, 'for a man to predict when someone will arrive, first he has to see how fast that person can walk.'

(Photograph omitted)