Eye witness

April 2, 1999

Turkey's universities are an important political barometer - in the 1970s they were the scene of some of the worst clashes between left and right in a period of social unrest that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people and prompted a military coup in 1980.

Now the universities are the focus of a battle between Islamists and the secular authorities over religious dress.

So when students clashed with police in Istanbul last month it was an ominous omen for the April 18 general elections. Several thousand students commemorating the 21st anniversary of the deaths of seven students killed in a bomb attack were confronted by more than 1,000 police, many armed.

But Bulent Gokay, a student leader in Ankara in the 1970s and now a lecturer in international relations at Keele University's Institute of European Studies, believes students' power has declined. "Now there are other arenas one needs to look to, for instance the local community organisations, especially in the big cities, or even the many environmental non-government organisations."

The secular Democratic Left Party is hoping that the capture of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan will work in its favour, Dr Gokay says. "Many commentators are expecting that prime minister Bulent Ecevit's party will either get the highest vote or get very close to the (Islamist) Virtue Party. In this, the capture of Ocalan is definitely a very important factor."

A wave of bombings linked to the arrest has raised fears of further unrest. The army, historical guardian of the secular state, may have to tolerate a coalition including the Virtue Party "for a while", Dr Gokay says. The Virtue Party is likely to win the largest vote - 23 or 24 per cent - making it a main player.

The army might expect the Islamists to be more accommodating given the ban imposed on the Welfare Party in January 1998. The Virtue Party shares many of the banned party's leaders.

Meanwhile, former prime minister Tansu Ciller's True Path Party is striving to be the main power broker but Dr Gokay says it is unlikely to win the 23-25 per cent needed for the role.

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