Return of Welfare Party could mean trouble for Turkey’s AKP

The godfather of modern-day Turkish Islamists, Necmettin Erbakan gave Turkey Millî Görüş (“National Vision”), a religio-political movement based on his 1969 manifesto outlining Islamic morality and a route to economic independence. 

Millî Görüş gave Turkey the Welfare Party, which led a coalition government headed by Erbakan in 1996-97, as well as Bülent Arınç, Abdullah Gül and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, via their Justice and Development Party (AKP), have dominated Turkish politics for the past 17 years.  

Without Erbakan, who passed away in 2011, and Millî Görüş, Turkey would be a vastly different country today. Now Erbakan and Millî Görüş have returned. 

Fatih Erbakan, the 39-year-old son of Welfare Party founder Necmettin, relaunched the party last month. The new Welfare Party aims “to rightly represent the vision of the Millî Görüş movement,” Erbakan wrote on Twitter, “which is a natural continuation of history, faith and the spirit of our people, to create a great New Turkey and New World.”

Erbakan clearly hopes to pull supporters away from the AKP in March local elections. Among his backers is Abdulhamid Kayihan Osmanoglu, great grandson of 19th century Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamit II, whom Erdogan seems to revere for his iron-fisted rule and attacks on the West. 

But does the new Welfare have any chance? To answer that we need to look at its history.

Over the years, parties run by Millî Görüş changed names several times to avoid government bans. In 1983 the movement launched the Welfare Party. In an alliance with two other parties, Welfare gained 17 percent of the vote in 1991 elections. Five years later they had built a plurality and Erbakan became Turkey’s prime minister. But the Welfare Party-led coalition government was forced out of power in a soft coup in February 1997, suspected of an Islamist agenda. 

Turkey’s Constitutional Court banned Welfare the next year for violating the separation of religion and state. That ban was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in February 2003, despite the fact that the potentially Islamist AKP, led by three former Welfare figures, Arınç, Gül and Erdoğan, had just come to power a few months prior. Human Rights Watch challenged the ECHR decision, pointing out that the court had rejected bans on other Turkish parties in the past, to no avail. 

So, if the Welfare Party, launched by an Erbakan, has been banned by Turkey, and that ban upheld by a European court, can the party relaunch again, with an Erbakan at the helm, claiming adherence to the original?

''Nobody is hostile towards the late Necmettin Erbakan or his family,” wrote Saygı Öztürk of daily Sözcü, one of Turkey’s few remaining news outlets critical of the government.  “However, it's up to jurists who are required to comply with the constitution and laws.” 

He noted that a jurist had filed a complaint with a prosecutor to close the party, and that the Constitution forbids the use of names, symbols and signs of banned parties. “The Welfare Party was closed by the Constitutional Court in 1998 because it didn't comply with the principles of the secular republic,” Öztürk wrote.

Temel Karamollaoğlu, who heads the Felicity Party, which Necmettin Erbakan founded after the disbanding of Welfare, saw it a bit differently

“I think it's not the right approach, but there’s nothing to do,” he said. “Such things happen in democracies. It’s Erbakan's son, we love him and he’s made such an attempt. But if Erbakan teacher were alive, he would probably whip his son’s feet.”

It’s too soon to know whether the new Welfare Party will be allowed to contest the upcoming elections, but it’s clear that the party has an uphill battle to meet the 10 percent threshold it needs to enter parliament. In the 2015 elections, the Felicity Party, whose base rallies around the Erbakan name, took just 2 percent of the vote.

What’s more, Fatih Erbakan is not widely accepted as his father’s political heir. He has only the name, and carries very little political weight -- he was sitting on the Felicity Party board, for instance, during that 2015 vote. 

In fact, the most interesting aspect of the big relaunch might end up being this: if the Welfare Party is again banned, for an Islamist stance that violates Turkey’s separation of religion and state, then shouldn’t the AKP and its Islamic agenda also be in the crosshairs of Turkey’s Constitutional Court? 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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