Going on appearances, there is little reason to compare the elections held in recent days in Algeria and Turkey. Algeria’s ballot, held last week, was marked by the withdrawal of all major opposition candidates two days before the poll; not surprisingly turnout was a lackluster 60 percent, although the opposition claims even that number is inflated. In contrast, Turkey’s vote was bitterly contested. About 85 percent of voters turned out for Sunday’s vote, and they handed incumbent Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit a slim victory over the Nationalist Action Party. Yet in both cases, two entities — Islam and the military — hovered like specters over the ballot boxes. And, unfortunately, in neither case are the results likely to stabilize national politics.
Start with Algeria. The winner, Mr. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was backed by four political parties who control 85 percent of the Parliament. They put their considerable resources behind the candidate. The opposition, sensing a farce and fearing that the vote was rigged, refused to participate, handing Mr. Bouteflika his win.
There are ample reasons for suspicion. First, the military has been reluctant to let Algerian democracy run its course. The generals have not hesitated to intervene when the outcome has not been to their liking. Second, Mr. Bouteflika is a curious candidate. Having spent the last 20 years in virtual exile, he has no political base of his own. He owes his win to the parties that plucked him from obscurity — and the military that stands behind them.
That is a poor position from which he can try to mend his country. More than 72,000 lives have been lost in Algeria during a ferocious civil war between the government and Islamic guerrillas. The conflict erupted in 1992 when the military abruptly halted an election that was being won by a radical Islamic party. The killing has slowed: A ceasefire has been in place for 18 months. But the problems that triggered the conflict have only intensified: In a country where 70 percent of the population is under 30, there is little hope. Unemployment runs about 30 percent; the rate is twice that for the young.
Mr. Ecevit, Turkey’s prime minister, would no doubt dismiss any comparison to events in Algeria. His vote was bitterly contested, and he eked out a slim win over the nationalists. In addition, he can point to the participation of Virtue, the Islamic party, which came in third in the balloting. Even the Kurds took part in the election, and they won mayoral posts in several cities across the southeast part of the country.
But in Turkey, too, the elections are not what they seem. The generals who backstop the nation’s political processes — and continue to be country’s most respected institution — have made it clear that their tolerance for Islam is limited. In 1997, they forced the removal of a government led by a Islamic prime minister and subsequently banned his political party. Recently, there have been calls that Virtue, its successor, should be banned as well. Virtue polled a respectable 15 percent of the vote this week, but it is impossible to know how many voters were scared off by the military’s opposition to fundamentalist politics.
Turkey’s nationalists benefit from the hostility toward the Islamic party. They have also capitalized on the Europe Union’s blunders: Its tactless handling of Ankara’s application to join the EU infuriated many Turks. Party officials claim they have blunted their more militant positions and are ready to work with Mr. Ecevit’s center-left party to build a ruling coalition. That is no doubt true, but such a marriage of convenience is not likely to last. Having had six governments since 1995, the last thing Turkey needs is another fractious coalition.
The more natural partner for Mr. Ecevit is Virtue, but sensitive to the military’s preferences, he has ruled out a deal with the party. That line in the sand links the two countries. In both Algeria and Turkey, the military has ruled the Islamic parties off limits, and effectively disenfranchised their supporters.
The armed forces’ fear of the Islamic parties is genuine, but the important question is whether it is well-founded. The militaries’ maneuvers in both countries betray an alarming lack of faith in democracy and the constitutional safeguards that each country has established. The Islamic parties are popular because they tap popular grievances. Locking them out only ensures that their supporters’ frustrations will mount, and denies any government the legitimacy required to adopt reforms. In another troubling similarity, both Mr. Bouteflika and Mr. Ecevit may find their victory celebrations cut short.
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