BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: From Our Own Correspondent  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Saturday, 27 July, 2002, 12:59 GMT 13:59 UK
Turkey's political cauldron
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit
Bulent Ecevit has refused the trappings of office

Sweat ran down my back, down the sides of my body, down my chest and down my legs. Istanbul roasts in summer.

The breeze from the Bosphorous stops well short of most of the city, and in the smart meeting room in the AK Party offices, party funds aren't wasted on air conditioning.

I had come to the AK Party's branch headquarters in Eminonu to look at what is supposed to be Turkey's political future first hand.

Described by its political enemies as an Islamic party, and by more neutral observers as pro-Islamist, the AK Party is, apparently, striking fear into the hearts of the country's Western allies and causing unease in the powerful military.

It is comfortably ahead of any other party in the polls and as Turkey's Government totters and sways, people are starting to think about the prospect of the AK Party actually being in government.

Pep talk

I had stumbled - by luck rather than design - into a meeting of a women's group of the party. They were discussing a forthcoming fundraising drive.

It was hardly a meeting of the devout - somewhere between half and three quarters were wearing headscarves, some being flapped furiously in the heat.

But the rest - seven or eight - were dressed much more informally, one or two in sleeveless T-shirts.

If this was an Islamic gathering it was a very Turkish form of Islam.

Downstairs, the branch chairman did his best to give a pep talk to the tea drinkers in the local cafe.

There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of these tea shops in Istanbul - dark, men-only establishments with green baize table tops, a fug of cigarette smoke and a TV set with a washed-out picture perched in a corner.

The men smoke and play cards for hours at a time, fortified by tea served in surprisingly delicate tulip-shaped glasses.

Unpopular government

They are not particularly happy establishments. Many of the men within are unemployed. They sit all day, all week, all month, getting out of the house and going nowhere.

Their ranks have been swollen by another million this past year. Turkey's economy has gone backwards, shrinking by a tenth.

Unsurprisingly, the government is hideously unpopular. Under the current slightly crazy system of elections, none of the three parties that makes up the coalition looks like it would get a single seat in parliament.

The AK Party's message - a rather hazy one based around the charisma of its leader Tayyip Erdogan - goes down very well. But nobody says it has anything to do with Islam - many refer to the fact that when Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul he made the city services function properly.

Tayyip Erdogan
Tayyip Erdogan: Former mayor of Istanbul
Maybe, they venture, he can do the same nationally. Few people have much of an idea what he actually stands for.

It is the AK Party's popularity and the fear of a wipe-out of the old order that has kept the coalition government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit clinging on despite the illness that has left him patently unable to do his job.

It was the political crisis that took me the next day away from Eminonu and the tea drinkers to Ankara, Turkey's dull administrative capital.

After announcing early elections, the prime minister gave the BBC an interview.

After months of reporting on his various illnesses and proclaiming confidently about his imminent political demise it was with some embarrassment that I shook his hand.

There is much to admire in Bulent Ecevit - he is a published poet and translator and has worked for the BBC World Service.

And in a political world frequently described as "corruption bespattered", he has quietly but firmly refused the trappings of office.

He still lives in his suburban Ankara flat - not for him the prime minister's residence. Until recently he drove around in his Turkish-made Fiat - not for him the official Mercedes.

Change of heart

If the AK Party is the future, Bulent Ecevit very definitely looks like the past - but not as far as he is concerned. He said he had been thinking of resigning but then "recent political events", as he put it, had changed his mind.

And he would certainly stand in the election that had recently been announced for November. He still had things to do he said, especially in the countryside and for rural communities.

I wanted to persuade him to change his mind - not on behalf of those I'd been talking to over the past few weeks, who would often explode with anger when I mentioned Ecevit and his incumbency. But for his own sake, for his health, and for his reputation as a decent, if now rather ineffectual man.

But in the gloom of the interview room, that wasn't my job. I packed up my gear, made sure not to shake his hand too hard, and went out in the bright Ankara sunshine.

Key stories



Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |