NEWS

Turkish opinion polls paint a gloomy picture for the country after elections

How bizarre for a country that has been ripped off to the tune of billions of dollars over just a few years! If opinion polls are accurate, five awfully controversial politicians look safe or just around the corner from winning the 10 percent of the national vote needed for parliamentary representation in the November elections. And what a bunch! A man who faces a dozen corruption charges; a self-declared social democrat who is more famous for his personal greed and aggressiveness than for any genuine social democratic policy; a diehard nationalist and Euro-skeptic; and a lady who adores power and once governed one of the most corrupt chapters in Turkish political history. Add to them the country’s most notorious corporate desperado, and Turks will probably wake up to an unpleasant world on November 4. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the comfortable leader of every opinion poll, is banned from Parliament because of a former conviction – for publicly reciting a poem which the courts said incited hatred along religious lines. He is allowed to have a seat in the Cabinet – but not the premier’s. Apparently Mr Erdogan’s «tough guy» manners appeal to millions of Turks. He gets dizzy speaking fiercely to tens of thousands of chanting supporters at public rallies. But he is a man who faces prosecution for billions of dollars’ worth of corruption charges. And, to remind Mr Erdogan, he will be deprived of a parliamentary shield against prosecution because of his ban. Perhaps the man who is disliked by most of the Turkish establishment should have been more cautious when he privately met with the heroes of two of Turkey’s most famous bank scandals. «So what?» he challenged in his usual tough guy way. «That group,» he said, referring to the media organization that unveiled the recent meeting, «will not make our party’s policy.» However he did not explain what was discussed with the two businessmen, whose banks collapsed after they siphoned off billions of dollars in bad loans to their own companies. Nor did he explain his motives for meeting them. (Mr Erdogan’s election promises include 15,000 kilometers of highway construction.) Deniz Baykal, whose center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) is the only grouping that challenges Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in opinion polls, is a leftist with a political career full of in-house fighting and splits rather than peace and unity, as well as strong anti-IMF rhetoric. Ironically, his party looks safe for parliamentary representation thanks to a man who shook hands with the IMF for a $16 billion rescue plan. All the same, bets have already opened in Ankara as to how long Mr Baykal could cohabit with Kemal Dervis, the former economy minister. (Mr Baykal’s election promises remain quite ambiguous.) Nationalist Devlet Bahceli puts strong anti-EU rhetoric at the center of his election campaign. His Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), currently the largest parliamentary grouping, unsuccessfully opposed a flurry of political reforms passed in Parliament in August. It was Mr Bahceli’s idea to opt for early general elections because «his coalition partners allied against him to pass the EU reforms.» Mr Bahceli’s critics say his party’s re-election to power will undoubtedly slow down political and economic reforms and further distance Ankara from Brussels. (Mr Bahceli’s election promises include, believe it or not, a plan to develop the national cartoon movie industry.) Tansu Ciller, a former premier, is the same old Tansu Ciller. The pro-EU and center-right Mrs Ciller had left behind scores of shady deals and once came close to losing her parliamentary immunity to be tried at a special court on charges of rigging multibillion dollar government contracts. It frustrated millions of Turks when Mrs Ciller and her archrival, Mesut Yilmaz, survived subsequent parliamentary votes that would have sent both of them before magistrates – in a not-so-secret but rare deal between otherwise traditional foes, their parties voted against lifting the immunities of both leaders. (Mrs Ciller’s election promises include making 100 millionaires [in dollars] in every neighborhood and a fresh flow of $225 billion into the Turkish economy.) But, according to polls, there is a newcomer in the league of those who challenge the 10 percent national threshold. And the prospect of his election leaves millions of Turks and Turkey’s international donors aghast. Cem Uzan, a multimillionaire and the crown prince of a Bosnian business family known as Turkey’s first corporate raiders, is facing a slew of court cases accusing him of fraud and racketeering at home and abroad. Two multinational mobile phone manufacturers, Nokia and Motorola, have sued him in New York for defaulting on over $2.5 billion in vendor finance that they extended to Telsim, Mr Uzan’s mobile phone operator in Turkey. He keeps on violating Turkey’s broadcasting laws to promote his staunchly nationalist Youth Party (GP) through his three television channels, eight radio stations and two newspapers – all of which give nonstop, front-page coverage to his «march to power.» Mr Uzan’s public rallies, warmed up by pop stars and his aggressive rhetoric, are drawing larger crowds, alarming many Turks and foreigners. He has toured more than 100 provinces and towns in just about a month. Some opinion polls put his popularity at around 12 percent. Inevitably, the man who is apparently inspired by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has become the talk of every diplomatic conversation in Ankara. A mere mention of his name unnerves many Westerners in the Turkish capital. But some Turks jokingly say it is great to see a Turk ripping off the West for a change; the man says he will not pay back billions of dollars’ worth of IMF and World Bank money when he comes to power. He may not go as far as prime minister. But a seat in Parliament will save Mr Uzan from hundreds of lawsuits he and his companies face in Turkey. Four million or so votes will probably make him the happiest man in the world. But his election to Parliament alone, forget a government seat, may cost Turkey dearly. Mr Uzan does not only promise to «kick out the IMF» but also to «teach America and the West a good lesson.» (Mr Uzan’s other election promises include scrapping value-added tax, distributing government land to people, tripling the number of provinces, quadrupling that of universities and giving schoolchildren free textbooks.) Wisely, the IMF has suspended the release of a $1.6 billion loan tranche to Turkey until after November elections. Perhaps the bizarre outcome of opinion polls urged the Fund to hold back approval until the new government is formed. Istanbul’s markets have been worrying that a post-election government led by Mr Erdogan’s AKP may spell trouble for economic management in general and for the IMF-sponsored recovery program in particular. After Mr Uzan hit the scene, traders may have revised their view of AKP, now the better choice between two evils.