Turkey's Powerful Prime Minister: Who Can Challenge Erdogan?
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP expects victory in this Sunday's parliamentary elections -- partly because his opponents are so weak. While intellectuals warn against the establishment of a theocracy, the old Kemalist elite is fighting for its privileges.
Istanbul's Ortaköy district, located on the banks of the Bosporus, is the city's most westernized neighborhood. High-end nightclubs such as Reina rub shoulders with classy restaurants along the waterfront. In the pre-dawn hours, staff at trendy clubs hand out "türbans" -- the headscarves worn by devout Muslim women -- to those revelers who are looking to conceal their identity because they are too drunk to really be driving.
The last of the all-night party crowd have hardly left the scene before a grand gentleman of the old school walks into his office high above the waterfront road, in a building once occupied by the city's psychiatric hospital where the mentally ill former king Talal of Jordan spent his last days in exile.
Ishak Alaton, almost 80 years old, is the wealthy head of Alarko Holding and one of Turkey's most respected industrialists. He is also among the discreet supporters of the administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in office since 2002, and his program, which has been widely labeled as "moderately Islamist."
But this is no deterrent for Alaton, the descendant of Sephardic Jews expelled from Cadiz, Spain. He indefatigably preaches the benefits of Western values, supports political foundations, cultural exchange and religious dialogue. He also enjoys inspecting -- with a healthy dose of sarcasm -- the front lines of the struggle over the achievements of the Turkish Republic.
Western values, believes Alaton, the strong-willed cosmopolitan from Ortaköy, ought to be defended on both large and small fronts -- including in daily life. This conviction is one of the reasons why, in Istanbul's stifling summer heat, he sometimes wears a sign on his jacket that reads: "Please do not kiss -- shake hands!" This, says Alaton, smiling, is the only way to keep one's distance from "sweaty Turkish men" with moustaches eager to plant the traditional brotherly kiss on his cheek.
Alaton takes a decidedly relaxed approach to the parliamentary elections scheduled for this Sunday, a race from which Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is slated to emerge even more triumphantly than in 2002. If, as Istanbul's liberal contingent persistently claims, Erdogan and his cohorts were truly pursuing a secret agenda to take the country through a lengthy series of constitutional barriers to establish an Islamic theocracy, Alaton would be the first for whom it would be a good idea to leave the country.
But he has no such intentions. He trusts his business sense, his good judgment and, last but not least, the word of Erdogan, the former avowed Islamist, who now respectfully refers to Alaton, a Jewish philanthropist and free spirit, as "Abi," or older brother. Erdogan also values Alaton's advice.
Istanbul bridges the gap between East and West.
His pupil has proven to be a good learner, says Alaton. "Gaining European Union membership did not correspond with Erdogan's convictions at first," he says. "But then we managed to convince him that it would be the only way to gain control over his army."
This remains a distant goal for Erdogan, as evidenced by a barely concealed threat by the Turkish military leadership, disseminated via the Internet on April 27, to overthrow the government should Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül be elected president. Gül's qualifications for the country's highest office mattered less in the end than the question of what sort of outfit his wife, a devout Muslim who wears a headscarf, would wear when representing the secular republic at official events.
The army's intervention, says the patrician Alaton, was "a shameful affair" not unlike a "coup." As Alaton sees it, the debate over whether the potential first lady's headscarf would jeopardize Turkey's self-image was artificially placed at the "center of the political confrontation."
The controversial garment is a square piece of material, usually made of rayon or polyester, about three and a half feet long on each side. Devout Muslim women wear the "türban," as it is known, wrapped tightly around their heads and secured with pins, together with a floor-length robe, even as they walk across Istanbul's Taksim Square in the searing heat.
These shrouded women are still a minority in this neighborhood, where their dress contrasts sharply with the prevailing fashions. Bare bellies, legs and shoulders are more common among women in the square, where a 1928 monument commemorates Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the "Father of the Turks" and founder of the republic, with two bronze statues covered with medals. On one side of the monument, a woman wearing a headscarf looks to the West; on the other side, a woman wearing no scarf and with her hair exposed peers eastward.
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