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Islamic Election Victory in Turkey Boosts Fear in Jewish Community

The victory of Turkey’s pro-Islamic party in the parliamentary elections here has led to fears of political instability and has raised questions about the future of the secular yet overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The religious-based Welfare Party won slightly more than 21 percent of the vote in Sunday’s national elections, the first time the Islamic party came in first in a general election since the secular Turkish republic was formed in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

The Welfare Party wants to strengthen Turkey’s ties with Muslim countries, to pull Turkey out of NATO and to make Islamic principles the basis for the country’s social system.

The conservative True Path Party of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller received slightly under 20 percent – a fraction of a percentage point more than its bitter conservative rival, the Motherland Party.

Under Turkey’s system of proportional representation, this translates into an expected 158 seats for Welfare, 135 seats for the True Party and 132 seats for the Motherland Party. Two social democratic parties received a total of 125 seats in the 550-member Parliament.

The rise of the Welfare Party – albeit with a narrow margin – has raised some fears among Turkey’s small Jewish community, which has reacted with worry to the tirades of the party’s leader, Necmettin Erbakan, against “Zionist domination.”

During the election campaign, Welfare Party officials often led crowds in chants to free the Palestinians and to help Muslims in other parts of the world.

They also promised to break the hold of the hold of the “Christian West” by joining with other Muslim nations.

Sami Kohen, foreign affairs columnist for the daily Milliyet newspaper, said there was “some concern in the Jewish community here” because of Erbakan’s use of anti-Semitic comments, such as his talk of Zionist control in world affairs.

“But I don’t think this is a priority issue with him. It’s more rhetoric,” Kohen added.

Turkey’s population of some 25,000 Jews – out of an overwhelmingly Moslem population of about 60 million – has lived relatively well since arriving here 500 years ago after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Political analysts this week called on Ciller’s True Path Party and on the Motherland Party to join together in a coalition to block the religious-based Welfare Party.

“About 80 percent of the Turkish people used their vote for a Turkey that is oriented toward secularism, modernism and the West. Now, it is necessary for the conservative parties to form a coalition,” wrote Ertugrol Ozkok, political columnist for the daily Hurriyet.

Both Ciller and Motherland leader Mesut Yilmaz have ruled out forming a coalition with the Welfare Party.

But it was unclear whether they could cut aside their personal differences to agree to govern together.

Analysts appeared convinced that ultimately the two parties would strike an agreement.

Such a coalition would require the support of one of the two social democratic parties, raising fears of another conflict similar to that within Ciller’s right-left ruling coalition, which collapsed in September, prompting Sunday’s election.

In Sunday’s voting, a Jewish candidate won a seat – the first time in decades. The candidate, industrialist Jefi Kamhi, was elected to Parliament on the True Path ticket.

Despite the relatively good relations Jews here have had with the broader community, there have been some disturbing incidents during the past few years.

In November, a Jewish businessman was murdered in Izmir. Anonymous callers to security forces were reported as saying that the slaying was in retaliation for the Killing of Islamic Jihad leader Dr. Fathi Shakaki in Malta. Although police later discounted the call, the murder of Nesim Malki occurred on the 40th day after Shakaki’s slaying – for which Islamic Jihad put the blame squarely on Israel.

In June, the leader of the Jewish community in Ankara narrowly survived an assassination attempt when his car was blown up. A pan-Turkic Islamic group claimed responsibility for that incident.

In 1992, Israeli embassy chief Ehud Saden was assassinated.

In 1993, the father of the Jewish industrialist who won a seat on Sunday was the target of a failed assassination attempt, which was blamed on radical Islamists.

The Welfare Party, with its appeal to restoring Islamic principles, has seen steady growth in its base of support.

In 1994 local elections, Welfare was swept to power in Turkey’s main cities of Ankara and Istanbul, albeit with fraction of the vote.

But this proved that divisions between conservative and social democrat parties could open the way for victories on the part of Welfare.

Most analysts blame the growing support for the Welfare Party on Turkey’s economic ills – including an 80 percent annual inflation rate, unemployment unofficially estimated at 15 percent and a nearly bankrupt social security system.

While the mainstream parties stress integrating with the West and rapid privatization of the state-heavy economy, Welfare promises bread and jobs.

“Nobody has the right to defend the policies that brought us to this point. The people need a pill to help save them from their problems,” Welfare Party leader Erbakan said in a news conference on Monday.

Erbakan also promised other things, like renogotiating Turkey’s hard-won trade pact with the European Union and getting rid of the U.S.-led force stationed in Turkey to protect Iraqi Kurds from attacks launched by Baghdad.

The party’s platform also speaks of breaking the power of “world imperialism and Zionism,” and of freeing the Muslim world from outside domination.

But observers believe that Welfare’s platform will be watered down because of the necessity of forming a coalition government – assuming the party can find a partner.

Analysts like Kohen say that the difficulties of governing a country, along with Turkey’s secular history, make it unlikely that Erbakan will be able to put his rhetoric into action.

“I don’t think these issues are much in his actual plans,” said Kohen.

Kohen played down the possibility that Erbakan would engage in racial policies.

But, he added, “the question is whether if he were in office, some small town official would start advocating racist policies in this atmosphere.”

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