Tough agenda awaits successors

Rattled by economic stress, possible war in Iraq and disillusionment over its European Union aspirations, Turkey faces parliamentary elections in five days that will probably sweep many old-line politicians aside and bring a pro-Islamic government to power in Ankara at a most critical time. Most Turkish voters are frustrated and still volatile ahead of Sunday’s general election, but whatever its complexion, quite a difficult agenda awaits Turkey’s next government. True, Turkey faces none of the electoral hazards of Brazil – no front runner in polls seriously questions the country’s $16-billion recovery program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Indeed, bond yields were easing significantly (until profit-taking stopped the move) in rising optimism about politics – the newcomers will be effectively locked in collaboration with the IMF. Turkey will have to service $62.6 billion of domestic and $10.8 billion of foreign debt next year. IMF support is key to borrowing at reasonable prices in a market already scarred by Argentina’s defaulting on its debt and all that negative sentiment toward emerging market debt. Before everything else, Turkey’s new political leadership will have to sit down and talk business with the IMF. It will have to fulfill unpleasant obligations, such as laying off thousands of government workers and ending the state monopoly on tobacco and alcohol to secure $1.6 billion in IMF money which remains on hold due to the elections. Meanwhile, Turkey’s next government will be talking about Iraq with the biggest shareholder in the institution from which it has borrowed more than $28 billion since 1999. Iraq is another reason why it is reasonable to expect continued IMF support for Turkey – it is practically impossible to think that the IMF is entirely independent from the United States government, Turkey’s strategic ally. The new government will also face a critical crossroads. It may continue with political and economic reforms as well as with diplomatic warfare, hoping for a happy result from Turkey’s eternal fiance, the EU. Or, it may altogether break the engagement and seek a new partnership to the east and/or to the north. Ironically, that heavy agenda will probably be governed by what the secularist establishment sees as the «bete noire.» Although the poll front runner Justice and Development Party (AK), formed just over a year ago from the moderate wing of a party banned as a focus of Islamist militancy, says it has broken with political Islam and projects itself in campaigning as a modern, pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-IMF conservative party, some people in the establishment apparently think the party’s leading faction has not written off its Islamic leanings. Last week, Turkey’s chief prosecutor, Sabih Kanadoglu, asked the Constitutional Court to shut down the AK party for alleged breaches of laws governing how parties are formed and run. That must have been thrilling news in a country where four Islamist parties have been banned in the last three decades. But AK’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is barred from election to Parliament (and from becoming prime minister) due to a past conviction, has cheerfully rebuffed the challenge. «I say this clearly,» he said, «This closure case will in no way damage our party.» The prosecutor’s move has a clear technical and legal foundation but its timing clearly suggests a political motivation. It came shortly before the vote and on the same day Mr Erdogan refused to appear before a court to answer charges of illegal earnings and, as alibi, produced what looked like a faked medical report. His lawyers, citing the medical report, said Mr Erdogan was too sick to come to the court hearing, although the controversial politician was touring Anatolia, speaking at election rallies, the same day and would dine with EU ambassadors the same evening. Mr Erdogan, perhaps dizzy with his popularity at public rallies and in opinion polls, prefers to fight back. But the man who meticulously avoids calling Al Qaeda «a terrorist organization» is risking further prosecution in addition to a dozen or so corruption charges against him. It looks like he is fighting a war he cannot win. If, as is currently expected, the AK emerges as the biggest party, it should have the first opportunity to form a government with the possible second runner-up, the social democrat Republican People’s Party (CH) as a possible suitor. What looked practically impossible a couple of years ago may in fact happen in Turkish politics after Nov. 3: a coalition alliance between the Islamist AK and the staunchly secularist CH. The first signs of such a bizarre-looking deal surfaced last Friday when Mr Erdogan and CH leader Deniz Baykal, two otherwise hostile leaders, appeared in a television broadcast and agreed more on most issues than they disagreed. Millions of viewers who were perhaps hoping to see the two men trying to kill each other live on TV instead saw that the two could be thrust together after the elections. But what happens if the most likely scenario comes true? The CH is home to Kemal Dervis, a former economy minister and the architect of Turkey’s IMF-sponsored recovery plan. The party would fully stick with the entire standby deal. The AK says, however, that if it comes to power, it would negotiate with the IMF to lower a primary surplus target. This could create a dispute with the IMF but an AK-CH marriage should be able to iron out differences in mere figures. Some of the macroeconomic targets for 2003, such as 20 percent consumer inflation and 5 percent growth, may be modified if the new government insists. Under a counter-balancing AK-CH alliance, it would be safer to anticipate no major change in Turkey’s foreign and economic policies. Instead, the new government will put its stamp on the national agenda only «at the margins.» After Nov. 3, less is probably going to happen than many people think.