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Turkey: Political Confrontation Gains Momentum

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Embattled Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit has temporarily prevented the collapse of his cabinet by turning down the resignation yesterday of State Minister Kemal Dervis, the man who negotiated a $16 billion rescue loan from the International Monetary Fund at the height of last year's financial crisis. Yet, the political turmoil is not over, and it looks like Turkey might be heading for early legislative polls.

Prague, 12 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's political chess game advanced a few moves today after former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem announced plans to set up a new grouping that analysts believe may well represent the greatest challenge to date to the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.

The 62-year-old Cem resigned yesterday amid a string of defections in Ecevit's Democratic Left Party, or DSP. Ecevit today appointed State Minister Sukru Sina Gurel, a man generally described as unwilling to compromise on the Cyprus issue, to replace him.

Addressing reporters in Ankara today, Cem explained his decision to resign from both the government and the DSP by the necessity to press for reforms stalled by party bureaucracy and government infighting. "Both [the government and the DSP] have reached a point where they can no longer fulfill their functions as they have done in the past. The government has drifted away from its functions because of internal strife. In addition, the political balance based on the DSP has been disrupted. The government has turned into a structure that is no longer capable of taking the steps needed for Turkey, that is no longer capable of creating consensus and [imagining] solutions. It has been weakened. For these reasons, I, as a minister, could no longer pursue a sound foreign policy," Cem said.

More than 40 deputies, including seven cabinet ministers, have relinquished their DSP membership over the past five days, dropping the party to third position in the 550-member Turkish Grand National Assembly (parliament), far behind the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli, which has 127 seats.

With only 84 deputies left as of today, DSP is now one seat behind the main opposition group, the True Path Party (DYP) of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.

This week's serial defections followed two months of political uncertainty triggered by concerns over Ecevit's ability to perform his duties. The 77-year-old prime minister has spent most of the past two months convalescing at home amid a series of ailments ranging from a nervous-muscular disorder and blood clots in one leg to a spinal injury and intestinal troubles.

During that time, Ecevit has missed several important meetings, including a key European Union summit in Seville.

Turkey is a candidate for membership in the bloc, but the EU wants Ankara to bring its legislation in line with its human-rights and democracy standards before accession talks can even begin.

Public squabbling between Ecevit's two coalition partners, Bahceli's MHP and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's conservative Motherland Party (ANAP), precipitated the current political crisis.

Although he claims to favor entry into the EU, Bahceli is opposed to legal changes required for membership, such as the abolition of the death penalty or the bestowing of greater cultural rights to the Kurdish minority, that he says would be detrimental to Turkey's national interests.

Conversely, Yilmaz, who supervises relations with Brussels in the cabinet, is pressing parliament to amend Turkish laws as soon as possible so that the EU can set a date for accession talks when it meets in December to decide on its first enlargement wave.

Turkey stands last among 13 would-be EU members. The prospects for Turkey's realizing its European dream anytime soon faded away when Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen slammed Ankara on 4 July for not fulfilling the admission criteria.

On 1 July, parliament had gone into a three-month summer recess without passing the legislation required by the EU to qualify for membership. In addition to stalemate on the EU front, there are growing concerns that political uncertainty might derail a $16 billion rescue deal endorsed by the International Monetary Fund to help the country out of its worst economic crisis since the end of World War II.

Turkey's depressed financial markets and pro-EU business community now place great hopes on a new grouping made of relatively young leaders that analysts believe could rejuvenate a political establishment marred by infighting, patronage, and corruption; end the current government paralysis; and restore confidence in the country.

Ex-DSP Foreign Minister Cem said today he will launch a movement to spearhead the renewal of Turkey's political establishment together with two other prominent figures, State Minister Kemal Dervis and former Deputy Prime Minister Husamettin Ozkan. Cem said the new grouping, which he described as based on "social democratic" principles, will be open to all parliamentarians who have recently defected, or who might defect in the future, from Ecevit's DSP. "Together with my fellow parliamentarians, and first of all with Mr. Husamettin Ozkan and Mr. Dervis, we have decided to initiate a new movement. We have been working with Mr. Ozkan in the same party and government for the last seven years. We will continue to stand together during this new period. We share a common worldview and a friendship that dates back to our youth with Mr. Dervis, with whom we have worked closely since he returned to Turkey. We will continue to stand and work together," Cem said.

Cem said the main aim of the new party will be to turn Turkey "into an investment center in Europe and in the world" and help it achieve its European ambitions. "Over the past five years, we have brought Turkey to a stage where it has initiated membership negotiations with the EU. Turkey should not miss this opportunity. We are determined to take the necessary steps. One of the most important factors of our party and our government will be to achieve Turkey's EU membership and to complete the political and economic adaptation bills required for this," Cem said.

In comments made yesterday to Yavuz Donat, a columnist for the "Sabah" daily newspaper, Dervis pledged that the new grouping will come to power with a vision "to lead Turkey into the Super League."

A former World Bank director, 53-year-old Dervis returned to his native land upon Ecevit's request in March of last year to take over the reins of the economy, with broad powers in banking and market regulation.

Seen as the driving force behind the ongoing IMF-backed economic-recovery program, Dervis enjoys the confidence of Turkey's jittery markets and, equally important, of foreign investors.

Shortly after talks with a visiting IMF team, Dervis yesterday announced his resignation from the government but later recanted his decision, apparently yielding to pressures from both Ecevit and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer.

Whether Dervis will remain in the cabinet is unclear.

In remarks reported by "Sabah" today, Ecevit made it clear that there will be no room for the economy chief if he decides to carry on with his stated plans to enter politics.

Describing the brief talks he held yesterday with Dervis before the latter handed in his resignation, the prime minister said, "I told him that, if you enter a new political formation, then you cannot continue in your job [in the government]."

Unlike any other cabinet minister, Dervis is not affiliated with any existing party. Neither he nor Cem is known to be an experienced politician, but they can reasonably rely on Ozkan -- the third man in the newly created "troika" -- to help them navigate the pitfalls of Turkey's domestic political scene.

Ecevit's right-hand man in the DSP for many years, Ozkan resigned from his post of deputy prime minister and state minister earlier this week, triggering the current wave of defections. In a written statement issued on 8 July, Ozkan made it clear Ecevit had asked him to step down.

In an interview with CNN-Turk on 6 July, Ecevit blamed his closest aide for failing to defend him and his wife, Rahsan, who co-chairs the DSP, from growing dissidence in the party. The prime minister was referring to an appeal issued a few days earlier on 25 June by nine DSP parliamentarians who publicly urged him to step down to make room for a new party leader.

Ecevit hit back by issuing a statement in which he said that there were "no chairmanship problems in the DSP and no premiership problems in Turkey."

Appearing more defiant than ever, the besieged prime minister today told Turkey's private NTV television channel that he has no plans to resign.

Ecevit apparently believes he can rely on both his coalition partners, ANAP and the MHP, which have said they do not want to withdraw from the government. However, both parties now favor early polls, although their motives could be different.

MHP leader Bahceli insists elections be called in early November, a proposal his opponents suspect is aimed at preventing Turkey from voting crucial reforms in before the EU meets in Copenhagen in December to review Turkey's membership bid.

ANAP leader Yilmaz, by contrast, believes early polls should be held as soon as possible -- possibly in late September -- to leave the new parliament enough time to meet the Copenhagen deadline.

As for Ecevit, who for the first time on 10 July admitted to the possibility of legislative elections, analysts believe he could reluctantly agree upon a third scenario under which the present legislature, whose term normally expires in April 2004, is left untouched until it proceeds with changes required by Brussels.

Opinion polls suggest that, in case of early polls, none of the current coalition partners would overcome the 10 percent threshold of votes necessary to be represented in parliament.

This is all the more true now that Cem and Dervis, two men believed to be widely popular among the Turkish public, have entered the fray.

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