The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi--RP), 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. 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 is 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 stems 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 has adopted certain well-defined positions, such as opposition to Turkey's goal of full membership in the European Union, its adherents tend 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 tends 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.
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