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Welfare Party
(Refah Partisi -- RP)

Turkey's Islamic oriented Wclfare Party (Refah Partisi) was formally established in 1983. The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi--RP), first emerged on the Turkish political scene in 1970 under the name of the National Order Party (MNP). It was closed down a year later by the Constitutional Court for violating Turkish laws forbidding the use of religion for political purposes. In 1972 with the same leadership and program it reorganised under the name of The National Salvation Party (MSP). As the MSP, it participated in the 1973 and 1977 legislative elections gaining enough votes to allow it to participate in various coalition governments during that decade. In the early days, the party was courted by rightist formations anxious to please their conservative and Islamie electorate, and as a consequence Necmettin Erbakan, the head of Refah, represented the Islamic movements as deputy prime minister in three government coalitions in the 1970s.

The 1980 military coup resulted in the closure of the MSP as well as all other political parties.

The Welfare Party, which had received only 7 percent of the total vote in the 1987 parliamentary elections and thus had not qualified for assembly seats, was the main electoral surprise in the 1991 balloting. Nearly 17 percent of the electorate voted for the Welfare Party, enabling it to win sixty-two seats in the National Assembly. The Welfare Party was widely considered an Islamic party. But by the 1990s, even the most authoritarian-looking versions of political Islam in Turkey, such as the Welfare Party (the RP) in the 1990s were politically moderate by the standards of other Muslim countries.

While the RP was moderate by the standards of most Islamist political movements, and was a coalition of diverse interests and tendencies, it had some authoritarian leanings that raised doubts about how far it might respect a pluralistic political order. It appeared the party conceived of democracy in instrumental terms, serving their quest to move the Turkish state and Turkish society in a more Islamist direction. In the economic sphere, their model was hyper-populism with extensive state interventionism, to support their popular conception of the 'just order' (adil düzen). Their foreign policy involved a strong anti-European dimension, in addition to strong opposition to the state of Israel. The main thrust of their foreign policy was development of strong relations with other Muslim countries, with a focus on the Arab Middle East and North Africa.

According to the party's 'Just Order', modernity in terms of Atatürk's legacy of Westem imitation proved beneficial only to the West. The argument, similar to classical dependency theory, being that it allowed the West to develop by under-developing the Islamic world in general and Turkey in particular. However, while the Party declared that there was no "enmity towards the West", it was, according to one party official, 'both logical and reasonable' that 'the same as the West unites to serve its interests, the Islamic nation should unite for its own good'.

Its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, had been identified with Islamic political activism since the early 1970s. He was the founder in 1972 of the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi--MSP), which became the third largest party in parliament in 1973. The MSP openly supported a religious political agenda calling for the restoration of traditional "morals and virtues" and a reduction of economic ties to the Christian countries of Western Europe. In 1974 the MSP gained a measure of political legitimacy by participating in a CHP-led coalition government. In fact, Turgut Özal briefly was a member of the MSP in the 1970s and was at one time an unsuccessful candidate on its parliamentary list.

Following the 1980 coup, the military not only dissolved the MSP, along with other political parties, but also prosecuted Erbakan and other MSP leaders for violating a law forbidding the use of religion for political purposes. When new political parties were authorized in 1983, Erbakan founded the Welfare Party on a platform stressing themes similar to those espoused by the defunct MSP. The ruling generals--and most civilians--perceived the Welfare Party as a continuation of the MSP. It was therefore disqualified from participation in the 1983 parliamentary elections. However, the party did sponsor candidates in the 1984 municipal elections and since then has steadily expanded its support base.

The Welfare Party's strength was in middle- and lower-class urban neighborhoods and in the Kurdish areas of the southeast. This strength was first demonstrated during the municipal elections of 1989, when the party's candidates for mayor won in five large cities and 100 towns. The 1991 parliamentary elections provided further evidence of the Welfare Party's growing popularity and its ability to consolidate an electoral base. Inspired by the party's achievements in 1991, Welfare Party activists, including a new generation of university students, campaigned tirelessly to recruit new supporters. As a result of these efforts, the Welfare Party's share of the total vote increased to 19 percent in the municipal elections of March 1994. The symbolic importance of the 1994 balloting because of its religious implications, probably exceeded the actual significance of the party's turnout. Tayyip Erdogan, the Welfare Party's candidate for mayor of Istanbul, and Melih Gokchek, its mayoral candidate for Ankara, both won. In addition, Welfare Party candidates for mayor won in twenty-seven other cities and in 400 towns, including almost all of the predominantly Kurdish municipalities in the southeast.

The Welfare Party's electoral appeal stemmed from the popularity of its call for a return to traditional values--widely interpreted as meaning Islamic morals and behavior. Its slogans are sufficiently vague with respect to specific policies to attract diverse support. Thus, self-identified Welfare Party loyalists range from professionals who dress in expensive Western fashions and interpret Islam liberally to individuals, especially women, who adopt a contemporary version of traditional Islamic dress and give Islam a fundamentalist interpretation. Whereas the Welfare Party adopted certain well-defined positions, such as opposition to Turkey's goal of full membership in the European Union, its adherents tended to hold divergent views on most economic and political issues. However, they share a common interest in religious practices such as daily prayers, fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramazan (Ramadan in Arabic), avoiding behavior harmful to others, and reading the Kuran (Quran in Arabic). Furthermore, the Welfare Party's emphasis on common religious bonds tended to bring together, rather than to divide, Turkish-speaking and Kurdish-speaking Muslims and has impressed secular Kurds who have become disillusioned with other political parties.

The Islamist Refah or Welfare Party polled the most votes in the 1995 national election and came to power in July 1996 as head of a coalition government. The story of religious politics in Turkey is identical to the story of Necmettin Erbakan in Turkish politics. He was the unchallenged leader of the Islamist political movement. When his party became victorious in the 1995 general elections, he was given the chance to erase the negative image that he was a fundamentalist. However, he failed to do so. In the case of Erbakan it would not be wrong to label his behavior as 'erratic'.

Although Erbakan was against further integration with the West and claiming that the West is a Christian club, he formed a coalition government with Tansu Çiller who had previously made Turkey enter the Customs Union. As put by William Hale, this government between Erbakan and Çiller "looked like a car with two drivers, each trying to steer it in opposite directions."

Some Refah actions provoked the military, which labeled what it called "reactionaryism" or fundamentalism one of the two main threats to the state. (The other is separatism.) On February 28, 1997, the military-dominated National Security Council issued a series of recommendations or ultimatums to the government on actions needed to protect secularism. The 'post-modern' military intervention of February 28, 1997 was not a typical military coup and did not involve the replacement of a civilian government by a military government. Nevertheless, the military through indirect pressure and the warning of a possible coup in the future effectively facilitated the collapse of the RP-led coalition government in June and culminating in the legal closure of the party by 1998.

The military succeeded in forcing the Refah-led government from power, but Refah was succeeded by the Fazilet or Virtue Party. The Welfare Party which formed a coalition government with the True Path Party which had 158 seats in the TGNA in the 1995 elections, was closed down by the Constitutional Court in January of 1998 because the party was based on religious ideology, and had made radical religious declarations and undertaken such actions in violation of the secular Republic. The deputies which were left without a party joined the Virtue Party (FP) established at the end of 1997.

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Page last modified: 22-08-2013 18:24:05 ZULU