A rash of defections from secular parties has reinforced the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah) as campaigning has started in earnest for the 24 December general elections. Most seriously affected are Prime Minister Tansu Ciller’s conservative True Path Party (DYP), and its junior coalition partner, the social democrat Republican Peoples Party (CHP).

Analysts say Refah now has an excellent chance to secure the largest block of seats in the new 550-member parliament. Forecasts for the Refah share range between 25-30 per cent. Opinion polls are not permitted.

By 30 November, 23 defections including several prominent figures had reduced the CHP’s parliamentary strength to around 54 from around 80 when its new leader, Deniz Baykal, was elected on 10 September. The defectors mainly joined the ranks of former premier Bulent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP), thereby threatening to split the left wing vote.

The DYP also lost nine MPs to the main opposition Motherland Party (ANAP), strengthening the latter’s challenge for dominance of the centre-right. Its leader, former premier Mesut Yilmaz, also appeared to be making a play for Islamists not affiliated to the Refah, notably enlisting Korkut Ozal, older brother to the late President Turgut Ozal, ANAP’s founder in the early 1980s.

However, Refah has the most reason for satisfaction, bolstered by the enrolment of Aydin Menderes and his Democratic Party, analysts say. He is the son of former president Adnan Menderes, hanged in 1961 following a military coup the previous year.

Hinting that the country might have to accept dramatic political changes, President Demirel on 27 November urged Turks to accept the election results or else be ostracised by the civilised world.