The political ban on one of Turkey's most popular politician has called into question the country's European Union bid as it tries to establish its democratic credentials, and raised questions about the outcome of upcoming polls.
Turkey's High Electoral Board (YSK) ruled on September 20th that Recep Tayyip Erdogan was ineligible to stand in the November 3rd polls because of a 1998 conviction on sedition charges because of a poem he recited which was viewed as "inciting hatred" under the country's draconian constitutional Article 312. He served four months of a 10-month sentence on the conviction and received a political ban.
It appeared that Erdogan had been given a reprieve when an appeals court on September 6th overturned a ruling by a lower court enforcing the ban. Turkey's Parliament rammed through a raft of EU-demanded reforms in August that Erdogan's lawyers had argued amended 312 according to EU standards and therefore his conviction was no longer relevant. But the YSK on September 20th said that Erdogan could not stand in the elections because of his conviction. Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, who was forced to resign in 1997 in an army-backed secularist campaign, was also barred from the polls.
Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is leading in opinion polls - regularly recording figures above 20% - and is well above the nearest contender. Erdogan has tried hard to project the image of a conservative politician in line with mainstream political trends, including support of EU membership. But the country's secular elite remains wary of the popular former Istanbul mayor's claim that he has shed his Islamist past.
Ankara will find it difficult to convince Brussels that its democracy is sufficiently mature to demand a place in the next wave of prospective entrants. In response to criticism of the decision Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said on September 22nd that the ban decision was out of his hands. "The EU should take into account that the judiciary in Turkey is completely independent. Governments can in no way intervene into justice affairs. If the EU wants a real democracy in Turkey, it should respect the independence of the judiciary," Ecevit said.
Since Turkey's Parliament passed an ambitious package of reforms, Ankara has demanded a year-end start to membership talks with the EU, but Brussels has warned that legislative changes must be properly implemented before talks can begin. A progress report on prospective member countries is to be published in October ahead of a December summit in Copenhagen where new candidate countries will be announced.
The announcement that elections would be moved up to November from an April 2004 date had calmed jittery markets after weeks of speculation about the future of the fractious coalition after Ecevit fell ill in early May. At stake is $16bn in stabilisation loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which stepped in to resurrect the country's economy after the February 2001 crisis, which shaved the value of the lira in half. But despite the uncertainty of the elections and the country's EU bid, Ankara has garnered high praise for sticking to the harsh conditions of its pact with the Fund. The IMF's Turkey representative in Ankara per Brekk said on September 25th that "initial results" of the country's implementation of the programme were favourable. "The authorities' strong policy of implementation has enabled the programme to yield encouraging initial results, despite the political uncertainty in recent months," he said in Ankara. He said the targets of 3% growth and 35% year-inflation would likely be outperformed.
Turkey's fragile coalition has proved to be its own worst enemy, with two partners in the three-way government adding new uncertainty to its tenuous existence ahead of the elections. The crippled coalition has survived despite frequent reports of its imminent demise in the face of internal division, outside censure motions and widespread public disillusionment with the country's tattered economy.
The present coalition, an unlikely clutch of parties from the centre-left and far- and centre-right, is rarely to never mentioned without an obligatory glance at the divisiveness that has coloured its time in power. The government looked like it had received its deathblow on September 10th, when Mesut Yilmaz, deputy prime minister and leader of the coalition-member Motherland Party (ANAP), called for the delay of polls and Ecevit's resignation and threatened to walk out of the government. Yilmaz claims that early elections will undermine the country's bid to prepare its membership bid ahead of the EU meeting.
"It is clear that we cannot get anywhere on the EU issue with a government which includes the MHP (Nationalist Action Party)," Yilmaz said of his call for a new government to be formed. He decided the next day to remain in government despite his concerns over the country's EU aspirations. Ecevit, for his part, said he would remain in government. "Changing the election date when there is only one-and-a-half months left to the poll would prove harmful and also put an extra burden on the country," Ecevit said on September 11th. He said he expected the election to be held in November as planned.
Ecevit has faced repeated calls for his resignation since he fell ill and was kept from his daily duties for several weeks while he convalesced at home. With Ecevit away from his desk the government was hamstrung over EU reforms, which the MHP opposes and ANAP's Yilmaz, the minister responsible for EU matters, champions. But the reforms, which include the abolition of the death penalty and greater cultural rights for the country's large Kurdish minority are being challenged by MHP leader Devlet Bahceli. He wants to see an execution sentence carried out on Abdullah Ocalan, the captured leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, who Turkey blames for the deaths of some 30 000 people in past fighting in the south-east of the country. On the heels of Yilmaz's call for Ecevit to resign, MHP deputy chairman Bulent Yahnici called for legal action against the prime minister for what he claimed is Ocalan's preferential treatment at the hand of the state. He said Ocalan was permitted to communicate with his supporters and to give interviews to foreign journalists. "I call on prosecutors to take action … against the prime minister, the justice minister and the former justice minister. They are aiding a criminal," he claimed. Ecevit brushed aside the accusations, saying they were "exaggerated populism."
The MHP also says that easing the use of the Kurdish language in education will foment separatism, and Bahceli moved on September 15th to have some of the reforms, including the end of the death penalty in peace time and teaching and broadcasting rights in Kurdish, declared unconstitutional.