Turkey On The Spot

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The streets of the ancient city of Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey teem with vegetable hawkers and oxcarts, men in baggy cotton pants and women in silver-fringed headscarves. At the Ottoman bazaar, you can sip sugary tea and watch goldsmiths mold trinkets by lamplight. To the south lie the plains of Syria and the Middle East; to the east, the craggy mountains of northern Iraq. It all seems a long way from Europe. As the guidebooks say, here begins Asia. Don't tell that to the Turks. Suleiman Ates, 57, a grizzled herder from a small village in the hills north of town, insists he lives elsewhere. "Europa! Europa!" he cries when asked whether he feels more European or Asian. For someone who has spent his life herding cattle in the remote valleys of the upper Euphrates, Ates displays an amazing grasp of Brussels minutiae. "Turkey will have no problems if she meets the Copenhagen criteria" for European Union membership, he says over a plate of yoghurt and honey.

Turks remain passionately, indiscriminately pro-European, even though Brussels has made it clear it's none too keen to have them join the E.U. From Kurds in the southeast to imams in central Anatolia to U.S.-educated stockbrokers in Istanbul, nearly 70% see joining the European Union as the solution to their many problems: an economy that shrank by 9% last year and is still mired in its worst crisis since World War II; a threatened war with Iraq that could not only scuttle a recovery but also cause a new flare-up with Kurdish separatists in the southeast; and a ruling coalition that has been a shambles since it collapsed amid bitter infighting in July.

Turks may look to the E.U. as their savior, but solutions are more likely to come — if they come at all — from the Nov. 3 general election. The vote may provide the latest answer to the eternal question of whether this staunch Western ally and sole Muslim member of NATO is drifting toward Islamic rule. It will tell markets and frightened investors whether economic reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for a $16 billion loan package are likely to stay on track. And it could even give an indication of whether Turkey's nationalist forces are more likely to rattle their sabers in coming months in Iraq or on Cyprus, the island that has been yanked by a 28-year tug-of-war between Turkey and Greece but is now set to enter the E.U. long before Turkey ever does.

One thing is sure. The old bums are out. Voters will vent their anger against the incumbents — whose tenure was marked by charges of corruption and economic mismanagement — by turfing out every party in the current coalition. The Democratic Left Party (DSP) of Prime Minister Bόlent Ecevit, for example, has managed just 1.5% in the most recent polls, nowhere near the 10% threshold required to enter the Turkish parliament. The Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), founded in 1923 by Kemal Atatόrk and joined recently by the urbane former Economy Minister Kemal Dervis, is doing a lot better with 17.2%.

As they have in every election over the past 12 years, Turks are ready to embrace the unknown. The front-runner, with 29.6%, is Justice and Development (AK), a brand-new party with no government experience made up mainly of Islamists — people who favor a society based on Islamic principles — who insist, confusingly, that they are nothing of the kind. The AK's charismatic leader is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul and the country's most popular politician. But in a further twist of Turkey's conflicted relationship with Islam — the nation's secular rulers have for decades used draconian laws to forestall the rise of fundamentalism — Erdogan was last week banned from standing as a candidate owing to a 1998 conviction for violating Turkey's secular laws.

That hasn't hurt his party's standing; it may have even helped. If current trends hold, the AK party will help lead a coalition government with the CHP and Kemal Dervis, or possibly the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). An outside contender is the Young Party, led by media and mobilephone tycoon Cem Uzan, which is campaigning on an anti-IMF platform and the promise of no taxes and free medicine.

 

Erdogan's ascent has been closely watched in Turkey and abroad. His critics, notably in the country's staunchly secular establishment, say the party has a hidden Islamist agenda that it would try to impose on Turkey, especially if it won a majority. They say this might include the banning of alcohol in public places or the outlawing of swimsuit ads, though the AK party platform contains no hint of such measures. Critics also point to Erdogan's prominent role in the former Welfare Party, which was banned in 1998 for inciting religious hatred. And they remind voters of Erdogan's 1998 conviction for inciting hatred — during a political rally he recited a poem that reads in part "minarets are our bayonets, mosques are our barracks, believers are our soldiers." He served four months in prison, and was banned from holding public office for life.

Erdogan has gone to considerable lengths to distance himself from the Islamist label. The AK party's insignia features a modern-looking lightbulb symbolizing, as one party worker helpfully explained, "light." The sanitized headquarters in Ankara resemble an insurance office more than a den of fundamentalism. Speaking to Time dressed in a crisp blue suit and red tie, Erdogan insisted that he was a moderate in all things, and that he has no interest in imposing Shari'a, the strict form of Islamic law, in Turkey, even if it were permitted by law. And he denies outright that the AK is an Islamist party. "I am a Muslim, but I believe in a secular state," he says. "The expression Islamic party is disrespectful of Islam itself. Parties are fallible and Allah is not."

Saying anything else, of course, would land Erdogan in jail again. And at least some of his supporters, including the estimated 8% of Turks who are considered fundamentalist, would like to see Shari'a introduced in some form — though they are not permitted to say so. Mehmet Cinar, a 70-year-old retiree in the AK party stronghold of Konya, is a more typical supporter. "Turks are free to do what they want," he says. "But I'll be sorry for them when they go to hell." But according to one Erdogan aide, the AK is serious about its secularism. "We are not talking about a religious state," the aide says. "What we want is a state that respects faith, like the U.S."

It's a beguiling argument, but not everyone is convinced. "The people who control AK are much more extreme than they say," warns one senior Turkish official. Rusen Cakir, author of an Erdogan biography, says the AK leader could not change his philosophy even if he wanted to — doing so would alienate his constituency and deny who he is. "He's been an Islamist since he was 12," Cakir says. "He cannot betray his roots."

The Turkish state's heavyhanded treatment of Islam — a policy dating from the days of Atatόrk, the father of modern Turkey who once banned Turks from wearing their beloved fez — may be Erdogan's biggest boon. Women are still prevented from wearing headscarves in universities, hospitals and other public buildings because the garments are viewed as "divisive." Gulden Sonmez, an Istanbul lawyer, says the state's intolerance of such displays of faith has been growing. "There would be no need for a call for Shari'a if you could practice religion freely," she says. Sonmez runs an office that has received some 1,800 complaints this year from young women, including high school students, "harassed" by police for defying the ban. Erdogan himself sent his two daughters to the U.S. to study to avoid the interdiction, which his party may try to strike down.

Some of the AK's backing derives less from religious fervor than from economic despair. "It's an economic protest vote," as Cakir puts it, against the disastrous performance of the Ecevit government, whose mismanagement helped bring Turkey to the brink of economic ruin. Though Erdogan's party is short on economists, as mayor of Istanbul he demonstrated a capacity for hard work and, notably, clean government.

That could be a big plus for most Turks, who are just as worried about getting food on the table as they are about wearing a headscarf. Soaring interest rates and falling investment have choked growth and left joblessness at its highest rate in 20 years. Tourism, a revenue mainstay, is reeling from the double blow of the Sept. 11 attacks and looming war in Iraq. Foreign capital has vanished.

In eastern Turkey, the economic crisis has hit hard. When the Turkish lire lost 50% of its value last year, businessman Bedrettin Karaboga, who makes pasta and textiles near the historic town of Mardin, had to lay off 350 of his workers. Of 66 plants employing 7,000 people that once operated at the industrial park near the Syrian border where Karaboga works, all but 10 have been shuttered. "We are doing what we can," says Behcet, 36, who lives in two rooms in a local church with his wife and four children. He can't afford the uniform that his nine-year-old girl, Nazan, needs to go to school. "She asks every day," he says.

 

The desperation of people like Behcet may help explain the appeal of Cem Uzan, the free-medicine-and-no-taxes candidate who has no experience in politics and not long ago was best known for having been found in contempt of a U.S. court after his business partners — Nokia and Motorola — accused him of failing to make good on nearly $3 billion in debt. Uzan's critics say he is running for office in order to obtain parliamentary immunity. On the stump, he bashes outsiders. "We have to kick the imf out of this country to wipe away the tears of the [people]," the billionaire told a recent rally. "We won't bow to foreigners!" Written off as a joke when he launched his campaign, Uzan rode the exposure from the television stations he controls to third or fourth place in the polls, before falling back in recent days.

More sober-minded Turks are placing their bets for economic recovery on Kemal Dervis and the CHP. The former World Bank vice president is widely credited with negotiating the $16 billion IMF package that rescued Turkey from default. The markets are praying he will return as Economy Minister to ensure Turkey stays on track with its reforms.

In an interview with TIME at his Istanbul apartment overlooking the Bosphorous, Dervis argued that the worst of Turkey's crisis was over. "The exchange rate has stabilized, inflation is down and growth has picked up," he says, a copy of the World Bank tome Government at Risk on his coffee table. He lists key indicators, including a surge in exports to Europe, as evidence that Turkey has turned the corner. Still, it will be a year before the benefits of reforms such as the restructuring of banking and agricultural sectors are felt on the ground. Investment remains less than a paltry $1 billion a year. A war in Iraq would also delay recovery, he says, so he's calling on the U.S. to set up a trust fund to help Turkey should the bombs start to fall. But Dervis denies that he's indispensable to recovery. His team has built in guarantees of financial probity — like the independence of the central bank — that will survive regardless of who is in power. The recovery "will do fine without me," he says.

As Dervis' remarks make clear, the specter of a U.S. attack on Iraq lurks behind all of Turkey's plans. Few countries would be more directly affected by war. Ankara has consistently opposed the proposed U.S.-led action, which would involve at least one NATO base on Turkish soil, though in the end no government is likely to spurn Washington outright.

Not only will a war cost Turks dearly — Ankara claims they lost $40 billion in trade revenue after the first Gulf War — but it could also sow political havoc among the Kurds in the country's southeast. The border with northern Iraq has already been shut due to mounting tensions, eliminating millions of dollars a month in revenue. "We are tired of being a refugee camp," complains businessman Karaboga, who also represents industrialists and traders along the Iraq border. Asked if he would open up Turkey's airspace and non-NATO military bases to the U.S. in the event of war, even Erdogan hedged: "In Turkey we have a saying, 'Don't sew the clothes before the baby is born.'"

That adage doesn't seem to apply to the prospect of E.U. membership, a suit for which Turkey has been busily sewing even though it has no firm date to start membership negotiations. When the European Commission declined to give Turkey a date for such talks earlier this month, the main reason was not economic but political. Among the key concerns: the ongoing influence of Turkey's military on civilian affairs and the recent banning of political parties and leaders. "What can you say about a country that has to ban its most popular politician?" asks one veteran Western diplomat. Ongoing reports of torture, especially in the southeast, have also drawn criticism. "There are laws on the books to prevent it," says an E.U. official in Ankara. "But it is still continuing."

The treatment of minorities is another area of concern. Significant reforms — such as a lifting of restrictions on instruction and broadcasting in the Kurdish language — were passed this summer to improve the lot of Turkey's Kurds. But these and other changes still need to be put into effect. How, or even whether, that is done will depend on who wins next week. If the AK party does, it is likely to continue to support Turkey's E.U. bid if for no other reason than the process will make it more difficult for the party to be banned, thanks to E.U. guarantees on freedom of expression. "Without the E.U., the AK wouldn't exist," says Can Paker, head of TESEV, an Istanbul think tank.

Erdogan himself will not be permitted to serve as Prime Minister unless the party achieves a full majority and is able to introduce legislation to make him eligible, as he hinted to Time might happen. "It depends on the vote," he says. The party insists it will adhere to IMF reforms "with some adjustments," but even Dervis says he could see "small changes" to the 2003 IMF package. All parties claim to agree on foreign policy, though if the nationalist MHP were to do well it could make a deal on Cyprus less likely. Any coalition will have a built-in conflict between the Islamic-leaning AK and the other parties that are staunchly — in some cases, zealously — secular. The government is unlikely to speak with one voice. "Turks won't entrust themselves to a single party," says Atilla Yesilada, a market analyst in Istanbul.

Even if the policies of Ankara's new leaders are hard to discern, a debate is taking shape that is unlike anything Turkey has seen before. The old Turkey, in which parties were largely hierarchical, authoritarian and secular, is fading. There's now a clearer distinction between those who support minority rights, free speech, civil liberties and an open economy and those who do not. The debate is less about the E.U. than about European ideals. "The world will not leave us alone," says Yesilada. "If we don't act, our future will be dictated to us." Back in his Asian redoubt, Suleiman Ates would agree. In Turkey, Europe is not so much a place as a state of mind.