Turkey tries Islamic rule Erbakan's chance: Religious party not likely to prevail in U-turn.

June 10, 1996

SINCE THE REVOLUTION of the 1920s, Turkey has been ruled by Westernizing secularists, military or democratic, seeking its acceptance as a European power. For the first time since Islam ceased being the state religion in 1928, the chance to rule is offered to a leader and party committed to abolish interest, cease borrowing from the West and make Turkey an Islamic state.

The first catch is that Western democratic rules demand that the Welfare Party and its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, get the chance to make Turkey an Islamic state. The second is that he almost certainly cannot find a parliamentary majority for that. The third is that even a precedent-setting failed attempt would bring the country nearer to what the next election might accomplish.

The Welfare Party came in first in the December election with the largest bloc in parliament and over one-fifth of the popular vote. Government was offered instead to two secular conservative parties, ideological twins called True Path and Motherland, which came in a close second and third. Secular leftist parties came fourth.

The coalition under Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz of Motherland fell apart because of his bitter animosity to former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller of True Path. Mr. Erbakan skillfully exploited this with accusations of corruption against Ms. Ciller. She then failed to line up the left to keep the Islamics out.

President Suleyman Demirel had no recourse but to invite Mr. Erbakan to form a government. No willing coalition partners are in sight. His position is akin to that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was prime minister of India for 12 days while failing to win parliamentary approval of that country's first Hindu nationalist government, yet making history in the attempt.

The Islamic tide is abetted by the European Union's rejection of Turkey and by discrimination and violence against Turks in Europe. At a time when the NATO alliance struggles to remain relevant, a party that would withdraw Turkey is offered a chance, however unwilling its generals might be to obey. Mr. Erbakan is not likely to succeed this time, but the quarreling secular parties are failing their people.

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