Who's afraid of Turkey's Islamist party?

Who's afraid of Turkey's Islamist party?

Who's afraid of Turkey's Islamist party?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Nov. 1 2002 7:37 PM

Talking Turkey

The Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) is expected to emerge as the big winner in Sunday's Turkish general election, a development that Le Figaro of France described as an "alarm bell" for Europe. Several papers pointed out that the AKP's popularity owes more to a backlash against corrupt and ineffective politicians than to a surge of religious devotion. Britain's Independent said: "Surveys show that religious hardliners account for only a fourth of the votes the AKP is likely to receive. The fact is most Turkish voters will go to the ballot box to vent their rage at years of bad government and to give the unknown a chance." The "kick the bums out" sentiment is so strong that it's probable none of the three parties currently in power will pass the 10-percent vote threshold needed to win parliamentary representation.

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The AKP, which, according to the Financial Times, "emerged from the wreckage of two Islamist parties shut down at the insistence of Turkey's powerful military," now plays down its Islamist roots and positions itself as a pro-EU, pro-market-economy group. The AKP's popular leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is barred from politics because of a 1998 conviction for "inciting religious hatred" (his crime was reciting a poem that compared minarets to bayonets), but it seems likely that if the AKP win, Erdogan will govern by proxy.

The Republican People's Party, Turkey's oldest political organization, will probably finish second, since it offers a tactical voting option for secular, reform-oriented Turks. Running third is the Youth Party, a "populist vehicle" for "xenophobic far-right telecoms and media magnate" Cem Uzan, who has no previous experience in politics. Uzan is currently fighting a $2.5 billion racketeering lawsuit, yet, as the FT pointed out, the legal establishment that is hounding the AKP's Erdogan shows "a striking lack of interest in other candidates with a dubious legal record. … Mr Uzan's ownership of several media and other businesses, all of which he has used to boost his own campaign in violation of electoral rules, could in the longer run prove a greater danger to Turkish democracy than the unproven Islamist agenda Mr Erdogan is accused of harbouring."

It isn't clear if an AKP victory would hurt or help Turkey's chances of joining the European Union (last month the EU refused to give Turkey a date when negotiations could begin). Le Figaro's editorial asked, "How seriously should the European Union consider the [membership application] of a country of 70 million inhabitants that would be led by an Islamist government?" It concluded that EU membership would offer the best chance of preventing Turkey from falling under the influence of radical Islam.

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.