- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Turkey's Nov. 3 election will shift the country's center of gravity closer to either the West or Middle East. While secular, progressive parties would accelerate the momentum for Turkey's entry into the European Union, a triumph of the Islamic-leaning party could dampen Europe's already tepid enthusiasm for the country's membership. Incredible as it may seem, the outcome of such a critical issue is being influenced significantly by a battle of political egos.
The upcoming election will determine the makeup of parliament and who becomes Turkey's next prime minister. The Islamic-style Justice and Development Party is currently leading in polls, not because there isn't widespread support for secular, center-right and left parties, but because key players have been unable to strike alliances.
The first battle of wills emerged in July, when cabinet ministers exited en masse. Many wanted the ailing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to resign, while some sought a more prominent role in government. The resignations prompted parliament to schedule the election that was originally slated for April 2004 to be held in November. The ministers' exodus struck a fatal blow to Mr. Ecevit's political coalition, but this political shake-up could have led to political rejuvenation.
So far, though, it hasn't. Turkey's former foreign minister, Ismail Cem, created the New Turkey Party, and most Turks expected the widely popular former economy minister, Kemal Dervis, to join. But Mr. Dervis wisely opted out, since Mr. Cem has stubbornly refused to form a coalition with others, insisting his own party, with just 7.5 percent support, can win the required 10 percent of national votes necessary to win any seats in parliament.
Some observers claim U.S. requests for Turkish military bases for an invasion of Iraq have soured the popularity of pro-Western parties. But the Washington buzz over the Bush administration's reported war plans doesn't seem to have had an impact on Turkish politics yet. "I haven't seen anything that can be directly traced back to talks about war in Iraq, probably because it has remained in the sphere of the hypothetical," said Stephen Blank, a national security expert at the U.S. Army War College. "But an actual war would create a lot of domestic uproar and repercussions all over the Mideast, not just Turkey." Mr. Ecevit has repeatedly voiced opposition to a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Still, a triumph of the Islamic-leaning party wouldn't be as negative as it may seem. And despite the party's wide plurality support of about 19 percent, if it fails to win 276 seats out of the 550 in parliament, it will have to form coalitions to rule. The party is much more moderate than most Islamic parties around the world and supports Turkey's EU membership, as does a wide majority of the Turkish people. But the party wouldn't be as supportive of the economic and political reforms that Europe demands. And since many EU nations, such as Britain, see no urgency to Turkey's entry, a triumph of this party would seriously slow Turkey's ascension.
This would be an opportunity squandered for Turkey, for Europe and America, too. Turkey's entry into the EU would give Westernized, progressive, free-market policies a foothold in the Middle East. Turkey's evolution would provide a critical example for many opportunity-starved Middle Easterners to observe.
While the Bush administration is juggling many foreign-policy priorities right now, it must put Turkey's EU membership near the top. Mr. Bush should lean on his European friends, particularly British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to set a date for formal talks on Turkey's membership. While the union can't be expected to usher Turkey in until it meets the set criteria, it should demonstrate it does, ultimately, want Turkey the join the club.

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