For the first time since 1923, a party with a religious orientation leads the Turkish republic. Necmettin Erbakan, head of the Islamic Welfare Party, took over two weeks ago as prime minister in a coalition government. His party's primary partner is the center-right True Path Party, whose leader, Tansu Ciller, was named deputy premier and foreign minister.
Stung by Islamist governments in Iran and Sudan, and alarmed by violent Islamist movements in Egypt, Algeria, and other countries, Western governments naturally view the rise of Islamism in Turkey with disquiet. For his part, Mr. Erbakan has vowed to uphold Turkey's commitments to secularism, market economics, and alliances to the West. Turkey is a member of NATO and an associate member of the European Union. Mr. Erbakan is aware of the strong tradition of secular republicanism instituted by the national hero, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish republic 73 years ago.
Erbakan's statements notwithstanding, Western leaders see several reasons to be nervous:
The Welfare Party captured the largest number of seats in last year's parliamentary elections, but not enough to rule without an alliance with another major party. Welfare receives its strongest support from the ranks of Turkey's poorer classes. The party has a strong social services network and an effective grass-roots organization. It bases its appeal on Islamic values, social equality, and the fight against corruption.
The new government passed a vote of confidence in the national parliament on July 8, but not without some anxiety. Numerous members of Ms. Ciller's True Path Party, unhappy about the coalition with the Islamic party, had threatened to oppose the alliance. The vote brought a collective sigh of relief around Ankara, but after nine months of political turmoil, it is still uncertain whether Turkey is yet on the road to stability. And there are rumors that the military, which has intervened three times since World War II, is standing by for a takeover attempt should the new government falter.