Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

TALKING TURKEY: Turkish Court Ban on Islamist Welfare Party Boomerangs, Widening Gulf with EU

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

TALKING TURKEY: Turkish Court Ban on Islamist Welfare Party Boomerangs, Widening Gulf with EU

Article excerpt

TALKING TURKEY: Turkish Court Ban on Islamist Welfare Party Boomerangs, Widening Gulf With EU

Inside Turkey, the reaction was muted. But in the West, it was swift and sharp. Few acts could have better highlighted the deep gulf that separates Turkey from its Western allies than the Turkish Constitutional Court's January decision to ban the pro-Islamic Welfare Party, the country's largest political movement.

Here in Turkey, the country's 65 million people continued about their daily business largely unruffled by the court's decision. In fact, the ruling ended months of political uncertainty and helped to lift prices on the Istanbul Stock Exchange.

But abroad, the move drew tough rebukes from the U.S. and the European Union, which fired off separate statements warning that the decision cast doubts on Turkey's commitment to democracy and the freedom of expression. "Americans have difficulty reconciling this with America's concept of democracy," one senior U.S. official in Washington said shortly before the U.S. statement was made public.

Turkey and the West are drifting further apart, with potentially grave consequences for both sides. As the only Muslim state in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey forms a geopolitical anchor for the West, a base for U.S. military aircraft patroling Iraq, a possible pipeline route for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea, and a friendly democracy in an Islamic world in turmoil. But the West is equally important to Turkey as its biggest trading partner, its key to economic success and its hopes for a better future inside an enlarged EU.

Despite those high stakes, analysts predicted that the tensions will intensify in the days to come, as the U.S. and EU pressure Turkey to strengthen its democracy, find a political solution to its 14-year-old war against Kurdish rebels, and demonstrate flexibility in resolving the intractable dispute on the divided island of Cyprus. "There will be reactions to reactions," said Bulent Aliriza, head of the Turkish Studies Department at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And the xenophobia within the Turkish government will only exacerbate the situation."

It's an unfortunate outcome, especially considering that the Turkish court ruling is unlikely to trigger the kind of violence that now wracks Algeria, where a bloody civil war has left some 80,000 people dead since the military-backed government canceled 1992 elections that an Islamic party was poised to win. Although the Turkish army clearly orchestrated the campaign against Welfare, party leaders seem determined to press their cause through peaceful means.

The Constitutional Court closed the party for "acting against the secular principle of the republic." The court, whose decisions are irreversible, also banned 71-year-old Welfare Party leader Necmettin Erbakan from politics for five years, along with three other Welfare politicians and three former party members.

Mr. Erbakan said he would appeal the decision at the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, France, which has issued several previous rulings against the Turkish government. And Welfare Party members began discussing ways to regroup under the banner of a new Islamic party.

Yet Erbakan and other party leaders warned their 4.2 million members against being provoked into a violent reaction that could trigger another crackdown by the military, which forced the country's first Islamist-led government to resign last June after just a year in office. "They have never seen us involved with guns, and they never will," said Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a leading contender to succeed Mr. Erbakan as leader of the Islamist movement.

"I'm glad the Welfare Party has been closed," said Cetin Ergin, a 33-year-old waiter at a restaurant in an old Istanbul district. "They were narrow-minded, mixing up politics and religion." But he added that he would support Erdogan, if the mayor were to emerge from the crisis as the leader of a new and more open pro-Islamic party. …

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