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How Islamic Party In Turkey Has Skewered Secularists

Turkey's 11-week-old coalition government is in a nose dive. Prospects for its survival are small. And waiting in the not-so-distant background is Necmettin Erbakan, the wily leader of the pro-Islamic Welfare Party (Refah). He helped engineer the collapse of the current coalition and stands to gain the most from it.

Much is at stake: Mr. Erbakan wants to pull Turkey out of NATO, leaving the alliance without a key anchor in the Middle East. Also on his wish list: imposing sharia, Islamic law such as is practiced in Iran, on Turkey's 61 million people; and enjoining the US-led Operation Provide Comfort from using Turkish military bases to protect Iraqi Kurds.

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Turkey's parliament is set to vote Saturday on a censure motion against Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz. If it passes, as is expected, his 11-week old government will fall and Erbakan will likely be asked to form the next government.

This would be the latest twist in a political soap opera that has left many Turks fed up or disillusioned. Particularly intense is the infighting between True Path Party leader and former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller and Mr. Yilmaz, who heads the Motherland Party. Their center-right coalition, which was formed in March to keep the Islamists out of power, fell apart amid accusations that Mrs. Ciller used $6.5 million in state funds for personal gain when she was prime minister. Ciller denies the claim and accuses Yilmaz of "stabbing her in the back" by allowing investigation of the charges to continue. In retaliation, and in an unusual twist, Ciller supports the motion of censure that would bring down the government of which she is a member. "Never before in Turkey's history has political life become so vile and mean," wrote Gungor Mengi, in an editorial in the newspaper Sabah.

The country's political peril has some citizens comparing their government to Italy, a country in near-constant crisis. "Except the Italians do not ... face the threat of an Islamic takeover," warns Dogan Heper, a columnist at the newspaper Milliyet. And the Islamists' power is increasing. In local elections June 2, Refah was dominant, getting 33 percent of the vote in the 41 constituencies.

Amid a poor economy - inflation is at 80 percent - and corruption charges in the secular government, Refah has prospered with an anticorruption message and by claiming to be the voice of the dispossessed. Pollsters say that just one-quarter of Refah supporters share the party's vision of turning the 73-year-old secular state into an Islamic republic, but Refah has more seats in parliament than any other party and has control of numerous mayorships, including that of Istanbul.

The shrewd Erbakan has parlayed Refah's popularity into greater power. Using divide-and-conquer tactics, Refah pursued the corruption allegations against Ciller. Only later did Yilmaz join in. And Refah spearheaded the censure motion that may bring down Yilmaz's government. As Erbakan is fond of saying, it is he "who holds the key" to Turkish politics.

But it's yet to be seen if secularists Yilmaz and Ciller will unite again to fend off Erbakan. Most observers agree this is not likely because of the acrimony between them. More probable are talks between Erbakan and Ciller, though she faces open revolt in her party for dealing with him.

Also key to the coming political maneuvering is the Army, which sees itself as the stern and historic guardian of secularism. It quietly but forcefully pushed Ciller and Yilmaz together in May and may make similar secular-saving moves again.

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