Wed, 17 May 2000

Proreform Islamists viewed gainig power despite defeat

ANKARA (AFP): The reformist wing of Turkey's main opposition pro-Islamic Virtue Party displayed its growing power at the party convention despite the defeat it suffered in the leadership race, analysts said Monday.

Abdullah Gul, 50, the leader of Virtue's so-called "modernists", who is urging greater moderation and inner-party democracy at a critical time when it risks closure for anti- secularism, got 521 votes Sunday against chairman Recai Kutan, 70, who was re-elected with 633 votes.

"Gul is the winner and Kutan the chairman," the mass- circulation daily Hurriyet wrote Monday referring to the surprising backing Gul mustered.

Gul's defeat meant the failure of his challenge against banned former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, the mentor of pro- Islamism in Turkish politics, who is said to be directing Virtue's actions via Kutan and other followers.

But analysts said his rebellion, the first-ever against a pro- Islamist party leader, and the backing he got displayed an increasing desire for a change in the grassroots of the party, whose traditions teach uncontested obedience to the leader.

"The fact that Erbakan managed to secure Kutan's re-election with such a narrow margin proved that the pro-reform movement is in a ferment within Virtue," wrote Fikret Bila in Milliyet.

"Erbakan will now either use all means to block the reformists or accept to share his authority after 30 years" of dominance, said Rusen Cakir from the same daily.

Bulent Korucu of the Islamist-leaning Zaman said the pro- Erbakan wing "had only one-shot powder and they used it in this convention."

"There is no possibility that they can win the leadership in the next," he added.

Underlining that predominantly Muslim but strictly secular Turkey was the only Islamic country to choose democracy, Hurriyet's Sedat Ergin said: "Turkey has now become the first country where a party representing political Islam saw a democratic leadership race."

Kutan played down the reformists' challenge Monday, saying that a rift within the party was out of the question.

"There was a kind of a struggle before the convention. Now it is left behind and there will be no inner-party rivalry," Kutan told reporters.

"The objective of all Virtue members from now on is unity and bringing the party to power," he added.

Gul, for his part, said in diplomatically-worded remarks that it was up to the party's administration to interpret the arithmetics of the vote.

"They should fulfill their responsibilities. We are ready to make any contribution," he told the all-news NTV channel.

Despite his campaign for moderation and democracy, Gul does not offer drastic changes in Virtue's policies.

He says they should continue to struggle to lift the ban on headscarves in universities and public offices, restrictions on religious education and bans on politicians, including Erbakan himself.

Even though he is out of politics, Erbakan was the non-present star of Sunday's convention with hundreds shouting slogans in his favor and raising banners reading "We do what he says."

The 74-year-old veteran, Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, was banned from politics in 1998 when his Welfare Party, Virtue's predecessor, was closed down for anti-secular activities.

The clout Erbakan wields over the party and the similarity of its membership rolls to that of Welfare are two of the main reasons Turkey's chief prosecutor opened a closure case against the party in May 1999.

Under Turkish law, banned parties cannot be revived under other names.

The prosecutor also seeks a five-year political ban on Virtue's leadership and the removal from office of all of its 103 deputies.

Virtue is charged with "exploiting" the people's religious beliefs, inciting protests against the ban on headscarves and orchestrating a failed bid by one of its MPs last May to take the oath in parliament wearing a headscarf.