- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

MUTLU KOY, Turkey For Osman Ozturk, Turkey's economic slide means all he can afford to feed his family is bread with sliced boiled potatoes mixed with mint and dried red peppers.

The wheat farmer is so disgusted with mainstream politicians that he plans to vote for an increasingly popular Islamic party in the Nov. 3 national election.

He's not alone. Opinion polls say the religious-oriented Justice and Development Party could emerge as the largest party in this NATO nation and could even grab a majority in parliament.

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That could mean another political lurch for a country long caught between Europe and Asia, religion and secularism, democracy and military rule.

Turkey's government has been pushing for membership in the European Union, and many analysts think a victory for the pro-Islamic party could slow that effort.

A victory for the party could also bring tensions with Turkey's fiercely secular military, which in 1997 pressured an Islamic-led government out of power.

And Washington is concerned that a government led by a religiously oriented party might be less open to a U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein's regime in neighboring Iraq.

A recent poll for Deutsche Bank put the Justice and Development Party in the lead, with support from 19 percent of voters. A secular, nationalist bloc was second at 11 percent. No other party got above 10 percent, which is the minimum for getting seats in parliament. The poll, which surveyed 2,400 people in July, had a margin of error of 1.5 points.

The fragmentation is not surprising. In recent elections, discontent over the economy and endemic corruption has led Turks to turn to new parties, which are not perceived as tainted by scandals.

The lack of consensus is also a reflection of Turkey's sometimes contradictory impulses. It's had a secular government for decades, though a religious party has made it to power. Its people are Muslim, while having strong ties to the West and even Israel. It's an avowed democracy, but the military has ousted governments three times and maintains a strong say in domestic affairs.

In Cubuk, a small farming town on the outskirts of Ankara, the capital, people say the political choices this year are simple.

"What do we care about the EU if we can't take a loaf of bread home?" said Salim Destici, an unemployed laborer waiting under a tree in the hopes a farmer would hire him for the day. He said he gets lucky about once every 10 days.

Just a few yards away, other jobless men sat around a table in a smoky teahouse, puffing on cigarettes and playing rummy. They said there was no point looking for work.

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