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Turkey: Prime Minister's Illness Focuses Attention On Health Of Political System

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was taken to hospital to be treated for what government officials and doctors described as a slight intestinal infection. The 76-year-old veteran politician has not returned to work yet, and his temporary disappearance from public life has sparked a debate on the need to organize early elections. But, more importantly, Ecevit's health problems may be concealing another illness -- that of Turkey's political system.

Prague, 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's recent illness has given rise to much speculation about his ability to further assume control of the coalition in power, thus epitomizing the frailty and shortcomings of Turkey's political system.

The 76-year-old prime minister was briefly hospitalized earlier this month (4 May) for an intestinal infection. Although Ecevit was discharged within 24 hours amid reassuring statements from his doctors, he has not returned to work.

Turkish media today quote Ecevit as saying there is nothing wrong with his health but that he will remain at home to recover from what he described as back pain for an indefinite period.

Ecevit's health has been a major concern in recent years, and the media have long speculated that he might have cancer, Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's. For the first time last week, doctors admitted that Ecevit is suffering from myasthenia gravis, an illness that affects muscles and nerves.

Yet, assurances that Ecevit's life is not under threat and reports that he will proceed with a planned visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan next week (23-25 May) have so far failed to calm Turkey's shaky markets and oversensitive political climate.

Talking to reporters on the day Ecevit was taken to hospital, Health Minister Osman Durmus spread alarm by saying that the prime minister was in intensive care -- information the government eventually denied. Turkish mainstream media later criticized Durmus, a member of Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli's far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), for what they described as "irresponsible" remarks.

Last week (6 May), Turkey's "Sabah" pro-government daily newspaper quoted another MHP official, parliament speaker Omer Izgi, as saying he might take over from Ecevit until new parliamentary elections are called. Izgi later recanted his remarks, saying the prime minister is fit enough to carry on with his duties. Other media have said Foreign Minister Ismail Cem -- a member of Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP) -- might prove a suitable candidate for the premiership.

Commenting on the latest events in the English-language "Turkish Daily News," columnist Ilnur Cevik yesterday likened his country to a "ship with no captain."

On 13 May, former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's True Path Party (DYP) -- the largest opposition group in parliament -- said early elections should be organized, while the Felicity Party (SP), a formation close to former Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, urged Ecevit to step down.

SP Deputy Chairman Mehmet Bekaroglu said the "power vacuum" created by Ecevit's recent ailment must urgently be filled: "Uncertainty over the prime minister's [health] condition must be dissipated. If [the prime minister] is unable to perform his duties, the parliament and the [political] parties must take action and the prime minister must step down."

Ecevit, who will celebrate his 77th birthday later this month (28 May), is an old-timer in Turkish politics. Originally trained as a journalist, he was elected a deputy to the Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament) in the late 1950s, before being appointed prime minister in 1973. It was under his tenure that Turkish troops invaded the northern part of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in response to a coup backed by Greece's military junta.

Ecevit relinquished his premiership in 1974 but has been chosen twice since then -- in 1978 and in 1999 -- to form a cabinet. His DSP has been ruling the country for the past 2 1/2 years, along with Bahceli's MHP and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's center-right Motherland Party (ANAP).

Political analysts say the veteran prime minister's departure would be particularly untimely while Turkey is engaged in a thorny membership process with the European Union and while possible military action against neighboring Iraq remains on U.S. President George W. Bush's agenda. Ecevit's resignation could also raise concerns in Washington while Ankara is about to take over command of the British-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF).

But first and foremost, a change in the country's executive leadership could jeopardize government efforts to rescue Turkey from its worst economic crisis since World War II. Ecevit and his coalition partners have been battling economic turmoil with the help of the International Monetary Fund, which has already pledged a $16 billion emergency aid package.

Ecevit, whom political analysts usually describe as the "cornerstone" of Turkey's political establishment, has shown no desire to step down before his cabinet's five-year term expires. In an interview with the "Sabah" and "Milliyet" dailies last week (10 May), Ecevit warned that, should he yield to domestic pressure and resign, the coalition would collapse and all gains achieved by his cabinet in recent months "would be wasted." "If my departure would not create problems, I would happily leave office," he added.

Gerard Groc is a Turkish expert at the French-based Research Institute on the Arab and Muslim Worlds (IREMAM). He told our correspondent that Ecevit's illness and the nervousness it has sparked among the Turkish elite is symptomatic of a political stalemate exposed by last year's economic crisis: "In my opinion, the overall atmosphere has been profoundly marked by the economic crisis that broke out last year and that is characterized by the fact that it is closely linked to politics. Before the crisis broke out, the economy was able to function in parallel with politics because it was running smoothly. But [the crisis] has shown that the heart of the problem was a lack of financial resources, and that the state, which was generating so much chaos and abuses, could no longer continue like that."

The economic turmoil started in February last year as the government was struggling to overcome an earlier crisis generated by tremors in the banking sector. Given the extreme volatility of Turkey's political climate, a simple row between Ecevit and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer over power-sharing issues was sufficient to unleash panic in the markets and force the government to float the national currency, which has since then lost more than half its value against the dollar.

The government now says the worst is over and claims that recovery is within reach. But, as Ecevit's sudden hospitalization has shown, Turkey's economy remains extremely dependent on the vagaries of domestic policies. Some political commentators have urged Ecevit to lay the groundwork for an early election while he is still healthy, lest the confidence crisis that affects Turkey's political life deepen further and lead to additional troubles.

Recent opinion polls suggest that, should parliamentary elections take place in the near future, none of the three ruling parties would garner the 10 percent of votes necessary to be represented in parliament. Ecevit's DSP is currently the largest political group in the 550-member Turkish Grand National Assembly, followed by Bahceli's MHP and Yilmaz's ANAP.

Experts generally agree that an early election would benefit moderate Islamic groups, such as former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Progress Party (AKP). Erdogan served a four-month prison sentence and was banned from political life in the late 1990s for a speech that allegedly incited religious hatred and undermined Turkey's secular statehood. He is also under investigation for possible violation of anticorruption laws.

Military and nationalist leaders generally see Erdogan as a threat and believe AKP, which was set up in the wake of last year's economic crisis and benefited largely from the country's financial troubles, could muster enough support to win a future national election. Last month, Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that Erdogan's earlier conviction barred him from being elected to parliament.

Addressing a gathering of AKP city mayors on 13 May, Erdogan accused Ecevit of leading the country to chaos, saying that Turkey is not suffering from economic problems but from what he described as "outdated political thought": "I am sorry to say, but each day adds a new black stain to Ecevit's political career. Turkey needs an election at once. It desperately needs the democratic changes that such an election would bring."

Calls for a political shake-up are originating not only from the opposition but from Ecevit's own camp.

Addressing a gathering of students in Istanbul late last week (10 May), State Minister Kemal Dervis stated that, in his view, early polls are unlikely to harm Turkey or its economy. On the contrary, he said setting a date for an election would help sustain stability.

A former World Bank director, Dervis returned to Turkey in March last year at Ecevit's request to take over the reins of the economy, with broad powers in banking and market regulations, and to help the government secure international loans.

The 53-year-old economist has so far remained out of politics, but Turkish media and political analysts have long tipped him as a possible prime minister, although he is not a member of parliament -- a prerequisite to head the government under the Turkish Constitution.

"Will Dervis enter politics?" asked "Milliyet" columnist Hasan Cemal last week. Cemal quoted Dervis as saying he is still undecided on how to start a political career.

IREMAM's Groc believes technocrats like Dervis might prove a possible alternative to Turkey's aging political rulers. "Should a transition occur -- and sooner or later the question will arise -- it is possible that [Turkey] might turn, not to an ideologist as it has been the case up until now -- besides, there are not so many ideologists left -- but to some kind of, say, 'technical expert.' And Dervis could well be one of them."

In Groc's opinion, Turkey, which is knocking on the EU's doors, will soon be confronted with a major choice: either it will agree to abide by the rules of globalization and integrate into the Western world, or it will opt for the status quo and choose to preserve its current political system, with all its shortcomings. Groc believes that, in any case, the coming months will be marked by further domestic political unrest.

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