Turkey's main opposition pro-Islamic Virtue Party votes for a new leader Sunday, a choice that will decide whether the party sticks to its troubled past or opts for reform at a critical time when it risks ban for anti-secularism.
Some 1,200 party members will choose between incumbent chairman Recai Kutan and his deputy Abdullah Gul, who favors moderation and an end to the party's row with Turkey's powerful army, a staunch defender of secularism.
Gul's candidacy has sparked controversy between the so-called "conservative" and "modernist" wings in the party, which is already in trouble with a case against it at the constitutional court for "exploiting religion in politics". The party faces possible closure.
Gul, a soft-spoken 50-year-old economist who is responsible for Virtue's foreign relations, has drawn criticism from the "conservatives" who accuse him of sowing the seeds of division within the party.
"If we become that negligent to start an inner competition, this will only benefit those who want to see us divided," Kutan, 70, told his parliamentary group Wednesday.
The "conservative" wing has urged Gul to quit the race and has put pressure on party members not to back him.
Gul has faced the criticism with softly worded remarks, arguing that Virtue needs administrative changes to gain strength.
"This democratic race will boost the party's prestige. It has brought great excitement and new dynamism to our grassroots," he told a press conference Thursday.
Gul pledged to boost democracy within the party and incorporate the provincial branches into the decision-making process if he wins the chairmanship.
The opposition against Gul stems from the fact that his bid is seen as a rebellion against 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 loyals.
The 74-year-old veteran was banned from politics in 1998 when his Welfare Party, Virtue's predecessor, was closed down for anti-secular activities.
The closure followed a harsh anti-Islamist campaign, led by the military, which saw Erbakan stepping down under pressure.
Even though Gul advocates a moderate political style, he does not offer drastic changes in Virtue's policies.
He says they should continue to struggle to lift the ban on headscarves in universities and public offices and for legal amendments that would annul bans on politicians including Erbakan.
The influence Erbakan wields over Virtue and the fact that its cadres are nearly identical with that of Welfare are two of the main arguements of Turkey's hawkish chief prosecutor Vural Savas, who 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 stands accused of "exploiting" the people's religious beliefs, inciting protests against the ban on headscarves and orchestrating the failed bid of 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 fall in support reflected the disappointment of Turkey's pious electorate with the Islamists' confrontation with the country's strictly guarded secular order.
Analysts have said a Gul win could bring Virtue closer to Turkey's center-right, but would play no role in the closure case against the party – ANKARA (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)