Is Virtue on Its Last Legs?

Article excerpt

The new millennium has so far been a rough one for Turkey s mainstream Islamist political group, the Virtue Party. Several of its leading lights and historical personalities have been given prison terms, and a long-running faction fight has recently intensified. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether the party itself will simply be banned anyway, just like its predecessor, Welfare.

Set up after a court decision in early 1998 to ban Welfare, which had been the majority party in the country's ruling coalition government from 1996-1997, Virtue inherited one of the largest and more liberal Islamic political movements in the Muslim world. Committed to parliamentary politics, despite a long history of pro -Islamist party closures in Turkey, it has been one of the few Turkish parties able to claim a mass, grassroots base.

Partly thanks to this, Welfare was able to secure municipal office in Istanbul and Ankara, from where it built the electoral base to emerge as the largest party in the country in the general elections of December 1995.

Its support has been traditionally centred amongst first-generation migrants to the country's booming cities and in the more conservative towns of the Anatolian heart-land -- though it has also enjoyed support from a growing number of urban, educated middle-class people. Yet the April 1999 general election saw this base shrink -- partly because many pro-Virtue voters calculated that Virtue would never be allowed back into power by the powerful secularist military -- but also because a political dispute had already begun gripping the party on what strategy it should adopt in the face of threats of closure and arrest.

The division has now taken more concrete shape in the form of a leadership contest to be held at the party congress this month. This will be between the incumbent party chairman, Recai Kutan, and its deputy chairman, Abdullah Gul, known as the `reformist' candidate.

Criticism of Mr Kutan's leadership of the party has grown on several counts. First, there is the allegation that he is basically controlled by the old Welfare Party boss, Necemettin Erbakan. Erbakan was banned from politics for five years following Welfare's closure, and in early March was sentenced to a year in jail for `inciting religious hatred' by making a speech that the state security courts found too incendiary.

Mr Erbakan is also one of Turkey's longest serving political leaders. Prime minister in the short-lived Welfare Party government, he was also deputy prime minister in the mid-1970s, and the central figure and founder of a number of earlier Islamist parties, all of which were also shut down by the courts. His influence in the party is therefore enormous -- too large, say critics, who are particularly concerned about his influence over Mr Kutan.

The second charge is that he has been decidedly impolitic in his remarks about the military. When Turkish police began digging up the bodies of Islamist businessmen and activists killed by Hizbullah back in January, Kutan was more outspoken than most in suggesting that Hizbullah had been supported by the state and in criticising the military for having failed to do anything about this particularly brutal group, while spending so much time and effort attacking Virtue.

This led to angry reactions from the country's generals and criticism from within the party that this was not a good time to be making such remarks, as Virtue was facing a closure case for allegedly trying to replace the secular republic with an Islamic state. …