an area of the map for world news.
World Press Review is a program of the Stanley Foundation.
Happiness, Contentment, and Rancor in the Turkish Opposition
World Press Review Correspondent
July 26, 2001
Turkey's Constitutional Court may have succeeded in dividing
the opposition, whether the court will be able to conquer
it remains to be seen. When, on June 22, the court banned
the country's leading opposition party, ruling it violated
the Turkish constitution's commitment to secular government,
commentators in Turkey were quick to cry foul. Now, only
a few weeks later, it seems lines are being drawn for a political
Kutan accepting the leadership of the Virtue Party in
May 2000 (Photo: AFP).
In accordance with the court's decision, the pro-Islamist
Virtue Party (FP)'s funds were confiscated and two of its
deputies, Nazli Ilicak and Bekir Sobaci, were removed from
their seats in Parliament. By allowing the party's remaining
100 deputies to keep their posts, however, the court managed
to avert a snap election and potential political crisis. It
also left 19 percent of the parliament without a party affiliation.
On July 20, the world witnessed the first step in the opposition's
inevitable scramble to reorganize, as Recai Kutantitular
leader of the defunct Virtue Partyannounced that he
would form the Saadet ["Happiness," or "Enlightened
Bliss"] Party (SP). Kutan is widely viewed as a stand-in
for former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, who is banned
from holding political office until 2003. Erbakan
has seen five of his parties banned in the past.
In a press conference announcing his petition to create a
new party, Kutan said the SP "is for the people who are
victims of the bad economic situation, people who have lost
their jobs, who have been made poor, for workers, civil servants,
and farmers." While expressing his confidence that the
country would eventually unite behind the SP alone, he was
careful to emphasize that the party would not try to force
an ideology on the Turkish people, that it was committed to
greater respect for human rights, freedom, democracy, peace,
and welfare. Though the delegates from the defunct FP have
not yet formally announced their new affiliation, 51 former
FP delegates were present at the SP's first meeting.
Kutan is not the only one vying for the loyalties of former
FP members and Turkish voters. Long before it was outlawed,
the FP was divided between a more conservative faction loyal
to Erbakan and a younger, "modernizing" faction.
As it happened, the Turkish press seemed more interested in
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's imminent return to politics. Under
article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, which targets those
who "incite hatred and enmity by showing racial, regional,
religious, or class differences" Erdogan, former mayor
of Istanbul, was banned from politics and sentenced to four
months in prison in 1999 for publicly reading lines from a
religious poem. After a three-year court battle, the Constitutional
Court lifted the ban the day before Kutan's announcement.
The "modernizing" faction of the old FP has rallied
around Erdogan, who is expected to form a party of his own
before the end of the month [Update: On Aug. 14, 2001,
Erdogan formed the Justice and Development Party. 54 former
representatives formerly affiliated with the Virtue Party
announced their membership in the new party WPR].
According to a recent poll cited on July 21 by Agence France-Presse,
voters have rallied around Erdogan as well: 74 percent of
respondents said they would favor his faction, as opposed
to a meager 14 percent who said they would favor the SP. There
have been early signs that Erdogan's popularity is eroding
support for the SP. Since Erdogan's return to politics, three
delegates have resigned from the party, whittling the party's
base of support down to 48 delegates.
The Turkish press, which has long opposed article 312 as an
impediment to free speech, reacted to the news with excitement.
Hasan Cemal, in the July 21 edition of the liberal Milliyet,
called Erdogan's banishment from the political stage "a
shame for democracy," and applauded the court's reversal.
"But the source of this shame still exists," Cemal
continued, "Article 312 continues to hang over the head
of Democracy like the sword of Damocles… [Continuing the process
of] democratization, and changing this law, will speed Turkey's
entry into the European Union. When," he asked, "Will
[Prime Minister Bulent] Ecevit's government… make good on
its promises to democratize the country?"
In his July 21 article for the pro-Islamist Yeni Safak,
Cengiz Çandar was likewise more enthusiastic about the court's
decision to allow Erdogan back into the political fray than
he was about the formation of the SP. "The first successor
to the Virtue Party has arrived," he noted flatly. "The
Saadet Party will take over some of the ground vacated by
the deceased Virtue Party… But the real excitement in the
political arena came yesterday, when the Constitutional Court
allowed Recep Tayyip Erdogan to return to politics. The probability
of changing Turkey's political map has arrived."
Murat Yetkin, writing for the July 21 liberal Radikal,
was less excited: "I have to admit neither Recep Tayyip
Erdogan's popularity nor the dynamism of his friends has affected
me. I was affected a statement the spokesman of this new group
gave in a recent interview: 'This new party will be transparent
like an American political party, and our existence will comfort
the military.' What are we to make of a new party whose first
messages are to the U.S. Embassy and the Turkish Army Joint
Chief of Staff?"
A July 21 analytical piece published in Ankara's English-language
Turkish Daily News hailed the lifting of the ban on
Erdogan as an opportunity for FP reformists to "set off
on the road to forming a new party without being hampered
by a leadership contest" and predicted that more delegates
would defect from the center-right Motherland Party and the
Islamist True Path Party. These defections, combined with
the broader support base three large opposition parties might
control, led the Turkish Daily News to speculate that
Ecevit's coalition "will have a tough time of it."
Other conservative parties may adopt some of Erdogan's rhetoric
in the hope that this will win them some of his popularity.
If this happens, Ecevit will have to contend with a more united
and formidable opposition. But nobody expects the SP, the
successor to the Virtue Party, to roll over quietly. Even
The Turkish Daily News, despite its grand hopes for
a reinvigorated opposition, concedes that "the conservatives
are going to go all out to prevent FP voters from siding with
Erdogan. The SP members are expected to begin running a smear
campaign, both openly and tacitly." If the fighting among
the conservative opposition parties gets nasty enough, then
the Constitutional Court may have pulled off a double coup
for Ecevit in allowing Erdogan back into the political fray:
It will have further splintered the opposition at its most
vulnerable moment, while sugarcoating the move with what looks
like a step closer to democracyand the European Union.