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Challenges Ahead for New, Untested Turkish Government - 2002-11-04

Turkey's Justice and Development Party, which won a sweeping mandate for change in Sunday's election, may find that obtaining victory at the polls was easy compared to putting together a government. Though the party considers the crippled economy its main priority, it will also have to deal with key foreign policy issues in the weeks and months ahead.

The one-year-old Justice and Development Party (AKP) has no experience in government, although some of its members have distinguished themselves at the local level. The fact that this party, rooted in political Islam but which now calls itself a modern conservative organization, is untested could complicate the formidable challenges that Turkey already faces.

First of all, the voters who put the AKP in the drivers' seat expect the new government to steer the country out of its worst recession since 1945. The official unemployment rate is 14 percent. Incomes have dropped sharply, and the number of poor people is increasing steadily.

The new government will not have much room to maneuver because its hands are tied by the provisions of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which granted Turkey a multi-billion dollar loan in exchange for belt tightening measures.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP leader, has sought to reassure financial markets by saying that his group will observe the pact with the IMF, although he also said some changes may be needed. The party said during the election campaign that some of the IMF measures should be softened to reduce their impact on the poor.

Mr. Erdogan, a former Islamist firebrand who is banned from holding office because of a conviction for inciting religious hatred four years ago, also signaled his support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union - the country's main foreign policy goal. Turkey wants the EU to set a date for it to begin accession negotiations at a summit in Copenhagen next month, but prospects that the 15-nation bloc will do so are not encouraging.

Ali Carkoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Sabanci University, says failure to set such a date will not only cause resentment in Turkey but will also play into the hands of the pro-Islamist elements in the AKP who do not favor joining the EU.

"The Justice and Development Party of Tayyip Erdogan was very careful in projecting a very pro-EU attitude. ... However, their core constituency is very skeptical and pro-Islamist," he said. "Therefore, if they perceive that Christian Europe does not want anything to do with the Muslim Turks, then, this leaves the door very much open for exploitation by their zealous pro-Islamist agitators."

Although Turkey changed its constitution earlier this year to meet EU demands that it abolish the death penalty in peacetime and grant ethnic Kurds the right to teach and broadcast their language, the EU says that is not enough. It says Turkey must increase freedom of expression, end torture in its prisons and bring the powerful military under civilian control.

Complicating Turkey's bid is the question of Cyprus. The internationally recognized ethnic Greek government in Nicosia is among ten candidates that could be given the green light to join the EU at the Copenhagen summit. Turkey says such a move would seal the permanent division of the island between the Greek south and the Turkish Cypriot enclave in the north. The EU says Turkey must try harder to find a solution to the problem.

Then, there are the war clouds looming over Turkey's neighbor Iraq. Turkey does not consider Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a threat. Turkish officials are against any U.S. intervention in Iraq because they fear it will destabilize the region and harm Turkey's frail economy.

But, as Sami Kohen, a columnist for the Milliyet daily in Istanbul notes, Turkey is a U.S. ally and will allow Washington to use its airspace and an airbase from which U.S. warplanes already patrol a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.

"This is the position: that it should be done in a different way, not by military means," he said. "Now, if the moment comes that military means would be used by the United States, Turkey has no great room for maneuvering anymore. It would have to give support, but it should be in a very limited way, you know, and also to see that ... the northern part of Iraq does not secede."

Turkey fears that Kurds living in northern Iraq might try to set up their own state, encouraging Turkish Kurds to re-ignite their own nationalist rebellion against Ankara. Turkey has threatened to send its army into northern Iraq in such a case.

Most Turks think that the United States can take out Saddam Hussein in a matter of days. As Ankara political analyst Semih Idiz puts it, what Turks dread most is a post-Saddam Iraq that might degenerate into a long and bloody civil war.

"There is no great love lost over Saddam in this country," he said. "That is not the point at all. The point is that there has to be some kind of a strong centralized authority that can take command of the country [Iraq] and prevent a potential civil war that could, you know, rebound in every direction."

Perhaps reflecting these fears, AKP leader Erdogan made a point Monday of saying he opposes a war against Iraq unless it is approved by the United Nations.