19 - 25 August 1999
Issue No. 443
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Erbakan bounces backBy Garith Jenkins
Banned Turkish Islamist leader and former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan moved a step nearer to a return to active politics last week following amendments to the Political Parties Law which appear to open up the way for him to return to parliament as an independent MP.
Erbakan has been banned from active politics since January 1998 when the Turkish Constitutional Court closed down the Islamist Welfare Party (WP) on the grounds that it had violated the constitution's provisions on secularism. Erbakan, as the WP's chairman, was banned from parliament for five years and forbidden from joining a political party.
An avuncular and still sprightly 72-year-old with a penchant for Versace ties, Erbakan is acknowledged even by his enemies to have one of the most agile political brains in Turkey. In 1996, he briefly succeeded in becoming prime minister, before his 11-month coalition was toppled by an intensive campaign by the Turkish establishment, led by the country's rigorously secularist military.
Despite the ban, Erbakan has remained active behind the scenes. He ensured that a long-time confidante, Recai Kutan, was appointed chairman of the Virtue Party (VP), which was formed to replace the banned WP.
Last week's amendments to the Political Parties Law provided further proof of the skills which have won Erbakan such a loyal following.
Turkey's economy is currently mired in recession and the government is anxious to secure an IMF loan, both to ease its borrowing requirements and to boost foreign investor confidence. The IMF has repeatedly linked a loan to the passage of a series of reforms, including the removal of constitutional impediments to privatisation and recourse to international arbitration in disputes involving foreign capital.
The ruling tripartite coalition of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit enjoys a comfortable majority in the 550-seat parliament, but its 351 seats are still 16 short of the two-thirds majority required by law to amend the constitution.
In return for the VP's support in changing the constitution, the government amended the Political Parties Law to forbid those banned from politics from standing in parliamentary elections as political party candidates.
Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit insists that Erbakan remains barred from parliament. "He can dream," said Ecevit, "That is all." But most legal experts disagree. "Erbakan can now stand as an independent at the next elections," said one constitutional lawyer.
New general elections are not due until 2004 but, under Turkish law, by-elections have to be held if five per cent of the seats in parliament fall vacant. Privately, VP sources are confident that 28 of their deputies, just over five per cent of the 550 seats in parliament, would be prepared to resign. Several have reportedly even offered to stand down in VP strongholds in order to ensure that Erbakan is elected to parliament as an independent MP.
The possibility of Erbakan returning to parliament has triggered a predictably angry reaction from secularists. "He must never be allowed to come back," said Nusret Demiral, the former Chief Public Prosecutor of the State Security Courts.
There has also been speculation about the reaction of the military, which, although it has recently adopted a lower profile, remains resolutely opposed to any perceived infringement of the principle of secularism.
"The amendments to the Political Parties Law represent the first goal that Islamists have scored against those who removed them from power," commented columnist Ismet Berkan in the daily Radikal. "But there could be others to follow."
The ultra-nationalist National Action Party (NAP), the second largest party in the government, is already pushing for an amnesty for girl students banned from universities for wearing head scarves. "Personally, I and most of the NAP leadership support the ban on head scarves," said a high-ranking NAP source. "But most of our voters are very strongly opposed to it. Many of them came to us from the Virtue Party in the April elections and we don't want them to go back. But the military won't be happy. They already have their suspicions about our commitment to secularism."