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Turkey: Early-Polls Agreement Brings Respite, But For How Long?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Reversing his decision to stay in office until April 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit yesterday agreed to hold early legislative polls this November. The decision, which must be endorsed by parliament, momentarily eased political tensions after weeks of uncertainty sparked by the veteran leader's health. But does that mean that the crisis is over?

Prague, 17 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Bulent Ecevit's fractured coalition government proposed that early legislative polls be called in early November.

The news sent Istanbul's jittery markets up 6 percent during the morning session today, reversing more than two months of steady decline.

Yet, there might be renewed political confrontation in the offing as the country enters a protracted electoral period and faces a deadline to bring its legislation into line with democracy standards required to qualify for entry into the European Union.

A brief statement issued yesterday by Ecevit's office reads that all three coalition partners agree that, in line with an earlier proposal made by far-right leader and Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli, elections should be held on 3 November, more than 17 months ahead of schedule. The mandate of the current legislature should expire in April 2004, along with that of the coalition cabinet.

Yesterday's announcement was made at the close of an hour-long closed-door meeting between Ecevit and his two coalition partners, Bahceli and conservative Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz. Another deputy prime minister, Sukru Sina Gurel from Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP), also attended the talks.

The four men agreed to take their proposal to their respective party members for approval.

Under the constitution, only the 550-seat parliament, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, has the authority to decide on early polls, but deputies are currently on summer recess.

Parliament speaker Omer Izgi said on15 July that, in line with a petition tabled by Bahceli's Nationalist Action Party (MHP), an emergency session would be held on 1 September to debate the possibility of early polls.

Yet, election officials now argue that should elections take place at the date agreed by coalition partners, deputies would have to convene before September, an option rejected today by Ecevit in an interview with the "Sabah" daily newspaper.

Tufan Algan, chairman of the High Election Board, yesterday said that once parliament sets a date for early polls, at least 3 1/2 months are needed to make all necessary preparations. This would include drawing up new electoral lists that have not been updated since the last legislative elections in 1999.

In remarks carried by Turkey's Anadolu news agency, Algan warned Ecevit and his coalition partners that should they insist on setting a date without consulting election officials, the constitution allows the board to overrule their decision.

The current political turmoil was sparked by concerns about Ecevit's health and his ability to run the country. Sidelined by a long series of ailments, the 77-year-old prime minister had been facing growing pressure to step down, including from his own political allies.

Since the beginning of last week, more than 60 DSP deputies, including seven ministers, have relinquished their parliamentary seats, bringing the former ruling party to fourth position in the legislature. All seven cabinet members have also resigned from the government.

With just 66 seats left as of today, the DSP is now far behind its two coalition partners, Bahceli's MHP and Yilmaz's Motherland Party (ANAP). It is also 19 seats behind the main opposition group, the True Path Party of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.

With only 272 seats in the legislature, Ecevit's coalition has lost its parliamentary majority. Should the DSP lose another four deputies, the cabinet would lose its working majority of 269 seats.

Analysts believe the risk of the government's facing a vote of no confidence may still be some way off, especially now that Ecevit has agreed to call early polls in November.

A vote of censure would require at least 276 votes, while the opposition has 190 seats altogether. Another 75 deputies, including 62 DSP defectors, are officially considered independent and 13 seats are currently vacant.

By all accounts, garnering enough votes to topple the cabinet would not be easy for the fragmented opposition.

Yet, some observers question the ability of Ecevit's cabinet to survive until the elections. "It appears that the 57th government will stay in power for some time -- days or weeks maybe -- like a sick man awaiting his death," writes columnist Oktay Eksi, in today's edition of the "Hurriyet" daily.

In an apparent bid to save his government, Ecevit pledged that he would use the time left before the elections to push through parliament bills needed to qualify for entry into the European Union. In remarks made to "Sabah," the prime minister said lack of time would, however, force the cabinet to deal with the "most-sensitive issues" only.

Among urgent reforms demanded by Brussels to start negotiation talks with Ankara is the abolition of the death penalty and easing restrictions on its 12 million-strong Kurdish minority.

The 15-country bloc will review progress achieved by all candidates in mid-October ahead of a December summit in Copenhagen where it is due to decide on the first wave of enlargement. Turkey, which applied for membership 15 years ago and stands last among 13 candidates, wants a time frame for accession talks to be set at the Copenhagen summit for possible entry into the bloc in 2010 at the latest.

Although opinion polls show that a vast majority of Turks favor entry into the EU, not all of them seem ready to comply with Brussels' requirements.

In tune with Turkey's influential military, far-right MHP leader Bahceli -- who, with 127 seats, now has the largest group in parliament -- opposes the abolition of the death penalty and claims that bestowing greater cultural rights to Kurds could reignite guerrilla warfare in Turkey's southeast.

Bahceli reportedly convinced his coalition partners to agree on early November polls in return for promises not to block EU-oriented reforms.

Yilmaz, who had earlier criticized Bahceli's proposed time frame for not leaving enough time to pass the so-called "adaptation laws," was initially proposing that elections be held at an earlier date or, should that be impossible, after the Copenhagen summit. But Yilmaz, who oversees relations with Brussels in the cabinet, apparently dropped his objections after his rival coalition partner vowed to cooperate in order to open the gates of Europe to Turkey.

Yet, analysts generally predict further squabbling on the EU issue, while pointing out that parliamentary groups may also fail to agree on an election date.

Opposition leaders are already challenging the decision reached yesterday by the coalition partners.

In what could be seen as a bid to secure a no-confidence vote against the cabinet before the polls, Ciller's DYP is now calling for an emergency parliamentary session to be held on 22 July. In comments reported today by the English-language "Turkish Daily News," the DYP parliamentary group's Deputy Chairman Turhan Guven said both Ecevit and his coalition should step down prior to the elections.

DYP's calls for an immediate parliament meeting are supported by Turkey's two legal Islamic parties, Saadet (Felicity) and AKP (Justice and Progress), which together hold more than 100 seats in the legislature.

AKP leader and former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan would like to see polls take place before November. Earlier this year, Turkey's Constitutional Court ruled that Erdogan was not eligible to run for elections because of a prior conviction for inciting religious hatred, and ordered him to step down from the AKP leadership by mid-October. An early poll before that date would allow the charismatic Islamic leader to campaign for his party, which opinion surveys suggest would perform much better than most traditional, secular parties.

Adding to pressures on Ecevit, AKP Deputy Chairman Abdullah Gul today predicted a further drop in the number of pro-government deputies in parliament and called upon the cabinet to resign before the polls.

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