Turkey's Islamist Leader Defeats Reformist in Leadership Race

Published May 14th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Recai Kutan, the leader of Turkey's pro-Islamic Virtue Party, retained his post Sunday after defeating a pro-reform moderate Abdullah Gul in a party convention here. 

The 70-year-old Kutan garnered 633 of the 1,154 valid votes to retain the leadership of the party, which is nevertheless facing legal moves to close it down. 

Gul, 50, who favored moderation and an end to the party's row with the powerful army, who are staunch defenders of secularism, got 521 votes. 

Gul's defeat meant the failure of his challenge against banned former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, the mentor of pro-Islamism in Turkish politics, who is said to be directing Virtue's acts via Kutan and other loyal followers. 

"This is the beginning of new era for Virtue. We will take all measures working together to take Virtue to power," said Kutan after the announcement of the results. 

Even though out of politics, Erbakan was the non-present star of the event with hundreds shouting slogans in his favor and raising banners reading "We do what he says", and "We love you all, but him the most." 

Party officials had difficulties in silencing the crowds after a spokesman read a congratulation message from Erbakan and a giant screen read "Mujaheed Erbakan", or fighter for jihad, a holy war. 

The 74-year-old veteran, Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, was banned from politics in 1998 when his Welfare Party, Virtue's predecessor, was closed down for anti-secular activities. 

The victory of Kutan, dubbed Erbakan's "depositary," was also a blow to Virtue's "modernists," who campaigned for improved democracy within the party, the traditions of which teach full obedience to the leader's authority. 

In their speeches both Kutan and Gul criticized Turkey's ban on headscarves in universities and public offices, as well as the restrictions on religious education and bans on politicians, including Erbakan. 

Both speakers pledged to struggle against the restrictions. 

In contrast to Kutan, Gul highlighted the need for self-criticism, saying the party has to carry out democratic reforms and incorporate provincial branches into the decision-making process to gain strength. 

Gul, the first-ever challenger of a pro-Islamist party leader, attracted harsh criticism from the pro-Erbakan "conservative" wing, who accused him of sowing the seeds of division within the party. 

"Our party has no concern over division. Our concern is becoming stronger and better defending our principles," said Gul, to both boos and cheers in the hall. Men and women, the overwhelming majority of them wearing headscarves, sat in separate sections. 

Erbakan's influence over Virtue and the similarity of the party's membership rolls to that of Welfare are two of the main reasons Turkey's hawkish chief prosecutor Vural Savas opened a closure case against the party in May 1999. 

Under Turkish law, banned parties cannot be revived under other names. 

Savas also seeks a five-year political ban on Virtue's leadership and the removal from office of all of its 103 deputies. 

Virtue is charged with "exploiting" the people's religious beliefs, inciting protests against the ban on headscarves and orchestrating a failed bid by one of its MPs last May to take the oath in parliament wearing a headscarf. 

Virtue won 15.4 percent of the vote in the general elections in April 1999, while Welfare had won the 1995 polls with 21.3 percent. 

Many observers believe the waning support for the party reflected the disappointment of Turkey's pious electorate with the Islamists' confrontation with the country's strictly guarded secular order. 

A Gul win was not expected to play a role in the closure case against Virtue. Analysts said his leadership could have only brought the party closer to Turkey's center-right -- ANKARA (AFP). 


© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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