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Erdogan Excluded from Turkish Parliamentary Elections - 2002-09-20

A popular politician in Turkey has been barred from running in parliamentary elections by Turkey's supreme electoral board. If he hadn't been banned from the November vote, the man might have been Turkey's next prime minister.

The electoral board ruled that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Justice and Development Party, cannot run on November 3, because of a 1999 conviction on charges of inciting religious and ethnic hatred. Mr. Erdogan's offense was to publicly recite a nationalist poem that is taught in state schools.

Mr. Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, spent four months in jail and was stripped of his mayoral post.

Under Turkish law, candidates with criminal records cannot run for office. But Mr. Erdogan long argued that a set of constitutional reforms enacted in August, including laws expanding the scope of free speech, should give him the right to run.

Mr. Erdogan began his political career in an openly Islamist party. But he says that he no longer believes in mixing religion with politics. The charismatic former soccer player says his party is fully in favor of membership in the European Union and would maintain strong ties with the United States.

But Turkey's pro-secular establishment and its military leaders in particular remain unswayed by Mr. Erdogan's claims. They say that if he came to power he would try to make Turkey an Islamic state.

In its ruling on Friday, the electoral board also barred Turkey's former Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and Murat Bozlak the leader of the country's largest pro-Kurdish party, Hadep from running for office. Both also have criminal convictions.

Western diplomats expressed concern over the ruling, saying it would weaken Turkey's chances of starting membership talks with the European Union.

Political Science professor Dogu Ergil of Ankara University emphasized it is not enough to change laws. He says implementing those changes is what will prove that Turkey is serious about bringing its democracy to European standards. "Even after the acceptance of many laws to abide by the standards of European Union, still the authoritarian mentality behind it seems to be lingering on," he explained.

Many analysts believe Mr. Erdogan's exclusion will bolster his party's ratings by attracting sympathy votes. Recent opinion polls indicate that Mr. Erdogan and his party could muster at least 25 percent of the national vote. That is some 10 percent more than his most serious rival, the pro-secular Republican People's Party.

Mr. Erdogan, has vowed to keep campaigning on behalf of his party, despite Friday's ruling, and says he will lodge an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.