TURKEY’S first Islamist premier is known at home as or Islamic teacher, but his first two months in power have left students of his politics perplexed. Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan’s first decisions as the head of the coalition government suggested a moderation and caution at odds with the fiery rhetoric of his previous pronouncements. The supposed foe of the West behaved like a good friend. Instead of pulling out of NATO, as promised, he reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment. The customs union with the EU would not be scrapped, after all, and the Gulf war allies could continue to use Turkish bases to overfly northern Iraq for another six months at least.

While back-pedalling, Erbakan was only biding his time. In mid-August, he flew to Tehran for his first official visit abroad, in the same week that President Clinton signed the toughest ever sanctions against Iran. Calm in Western capitals gave way to alarm, in the US in particular, as Turkey signed a multi-billion dollar gas deal with the Islamic republic.

If Erbakan felt constrained in his first few weeks by the delicate protocol of the fragile coalition between his Welfare Party (Refah) and the minority True Path Party (DYP), he has more than compensated for the early caution since then. The coalition agreement cuts both ways. It promises to maintain Turkey’s Western relations while developing those with Islamic and Eastern countries. It pledges to fulfil obligations to the EU customs union which began on 1 January, but also stresses that Turkey’s interests will be protected.

The veteran Erbakan is no stranger to the compromises and contradictions of Turkish politics, having participated in several coalition governments in the 1970s which failed to stop the political and economic anarchy that prompted the 1980 military coup. The National Salvation Party he led at that time was the precursor of Refah, which has enjoyed an electoral surge in the 1990s, and emerged as the largest grouping in parliament in the December elections, securing 158 seats out of 550.

Indeed, statements on his tour of Islamic countries suggest that Erbakan has never lost sight of the goals of a so-called, antiZionist just Order’ formulated in more than 30 years in politics, and voiced in fiery antiWestern rhetoric prior to the December elections. Apart from pledging to withdraw from NATO and turn Turkey away from the EU towards an alternative Islamic block, Erbakan has promised to promote a no-interest, no-taxation, productionoriented economy.

Despite talk of boosting trade, the main object of the Asian tour was to promote Erbakan’s ideas of an international Islamic club of nations. Besides Iran, it included Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Erbakan emphasised strongly Turkey’s potential as a bridge between East and West and the rapidly developing Asian markets, but the economic giants of Japan, China and India were not on his itinerary.

Ankara diplomats believe the premier chose to strike out independently abroad first, for fear of offending the military the self-declared guardians of modern Turkey’s secular heritage with radical departures at home. His diplomatic initiatives, including a ministerial visit to revive trading relations with Iraq, have also sidelined his coalition partner and Foreign Affairs Minister Tansu Ciller. The former premier was recently re-elected head of the DYP, but she still faces parliamentary corruption probes orchestrated by the Islamists themselves earlier in the year.

Erbakan believes that Turkey’s regional interests are better served by developing bilateral relations with its neighbours than by subservience to Western goals in the region. A six-month extension of Operation Provide Comfort (OPC), which has protected the Kurds in northern Iraq from Baghdad since 1991, was only grudgingly approved in July. By improving regional relations, Erbakan hopes to solve Turkey’s largest internal security problem, the insurgency by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in the southeast, which Ankara sees as supported from abroad, particularly by Syria.

In Tehran, Erbakan called for a summit between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria to explore alternatives to OPC. Though he has since played down this proposal. Refah in late August reportedly planned a ministerial mission to Syria to try and improve relations. These have long been soured by disputes over the flow of water from the Euphrates into Syria and Syria’s alleged support for the PKK.

In the last week of August, Refah also sought a start to legislation for a comprehensive programme to defuse popular frustration in the southeast. This would relax curbs on the Kurdish language and culture, end the state of emergency in much of the region, and improve conditions by promoting inward investment. Refah claims such steps. talked about for years, have never before been packaged in such a coherent way.

Peace in the southeast would be an astounding achievement and contribute to reducing the chronic budget deficit by saving some of the $8,000 million spent on counter-insurgency operations each year. It would also boost Refah’s electoral prospects it swept municipal elections in the region in 1994 when they were boycotted by a pro-Kurdish party. Having risen to the pinnacle of power at long last, the 69-year-old Erbakan has his sights set on securing an outright majority for Refah at the next general elections. Freed trom he confines of a coalition, he would have fewer reasons to compromise on cherished ambitions.