Turkey: A Rising Islamic Party Gives the West the Jitters

It seems like the last thing the U.S. and Europe need, a pro-Islamist government taking over in Turkey on the eve of a likely U.S.-led attack on neighboring Iraq. But according to public opinion polls, the year-old Justice & Development Party (AKP)--the latest reincarnation of earlier-banned Islamic groupings--could win 30% or more of the popular vote in Turkey's general elections on Nov. 3. That would make the AKP the Parliament's majority party, since smaller parties are excluded if they score under 10%. And it would mark a key shift away from the secular parties that have traditionally held power in Turkey.

That's leading to nervousness in Washington, on Wall Street, and in European capitals. Some diplomats and analysts worry that the AKP's conservative Islamic populism may lead to more instability just when the strategically important nation is least prepared for it. Turkey is only haltingly recovering from its worst-ever slump, thanks to a $17 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The fear is that an AKP government might be ill equipped to reform the economy and a difficult ally against Iraq. The Islamists' previous period in power, for 12 months in 1996 and 1997, was marked by tensions with the staunchly secular military. "With an economy on life support and a war across the border, we're not facing the most promising situation," says Bulent Aliriza, a specialist on Turkey at Washington's Center for Strategic & International Studies. "There's a whole different feel about these elections."

What's different is the spectacular rise of the AKP and its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 48, a former Istanbul mayor. He has been banned from running in the election because of a conviction for inciting religious strife in 1998, but he would play a role advising an AKP Prime Minister--perhaps party co-founder Abdullah Gul. The AKP is benefiting from dissatisfaction with Turkey's corruption-ridden secular parties, three of which have shared power under aging Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit since early 1999.

To capitalize on the discontent, AKP leaders are stressing their goals of fighting corruption, streamlining government, and making the economy more efficient. The AKP will work closely with the IMF and move as quickly as possible to meet requirements for talks on joining the European Union, says Ali Babacan, an economic policy coordinator for the party. An AKP government would "be cooperative" with the U.S. on Iraq, he adds.

Party leaders recently visited London and the U.S. to convince investors the AKP has moved away from religious politics. But will the markets bite? Since the election was called in August, the Istanbul Stock Index has fallen 15%. Investors might feel reassured if the new government were to include Kemal Dervis, who organized Turkey's economic rescue. But Dervis is a candidate for the center-left Republican Peoples' Party, which may not win enough seats to force a coalition.

So the elections could well open a new era in Ankara. Turkish voters, investors, and political leaders in the U.S. and Europe will be watching to see if it's for good or ill.

By John Rossant in Paris, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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