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Turkey: Outgoing Dervis Expected To Join The Political Fray

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

After weeks of uncertainty and rumors over his deteriorating relations with Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, Economy Minister Kemal Dervis resigned over the weekend, vowing to work toward uniting Turkey's fragmented center-left parties. Dervis is now expected to join the political fray ahead of the 3 November legislative elections. But this nonparty technocrat -- who stands behind a $16 billion IMF deal to rescue Turkey's ailing economy -- is keeping potential allies guessing about his next steps.

Prague, 12 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ending weeks of speculation over his future in Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's crumbling coalition cabinet, Turkish State Minister and Economy Minister Kemal Dervis handed in his resignation on 10 August, vowing to work toward ending his country's endemic political fragmentation.

A former World Bank director, the 53-year-old Dervis had returned to his native country in March 2001 to take over the reins of the economy, with broad powers in banking and market regulation.

Ecevit appointed a little-known lawmaker from his Democratic Left Party, or DSP, to replace the outgoing minister. A former accountant, 51-year-old Masum Turker, will face the uneasy task of overseeing efforts to rescue Turkey from its worst economic crisis since 1945.

Yet, market analysts believe the new economy minister will have limited influence, if any, over ongoing reforms aimed at reversing an 18-month-old recession with the help of $16 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund, or IMF.

All the more so because Turkey, which last month plunged into political turmoil amid rumors about Ecevit's health, is heading toward early legislative polls that, barring unexpected developments, should take place on 3 November. Turker is unlikely to survive politically beyond that date.

Dervis resigned less than 24 hours after Ecevit summoned him to his office to urge him either to stop canvassing rival political parties or to relinquish his portfolio.

Addressing reporters on 10 August, Dervis said "uneasy" talks he held the day before with the head of government prompted him to action. "[Ecevit] told me that it would not be right for me to continue serving in the government while pursuing political activities. Given the situation and having assessed [the prime minister's] opinion, I am resigning from the government," Dervis said.

Dervis's decision ended weeks of latent confrontation with the embattled Ecevit, whose DSP last month dropped to fourth position in parliament after a series of defections that left it with only 65 seats, down from a precrisis 128.

It was the second time Dervis had attempted to leave the cabinet in recent weeks.

Ecevit had first accepted his minister's resignation on 11 July but had to recant his decision upon President Ahmet Necdet Sezer's request.

The prime minister had long expressed his annoyance at Dervis's flirting with prominent DSP defectors, such as former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and former State Minister Husamettin Ozkan.

Cem and Ozkan, who both resigned from the government last month, have since laid the foundations of a new political party known as New Turkey (Yeni Turkiye), or YTP, which they pledge will accelerate economic reforms and Turkey's progress toward accession to the European Union.

Political analysts believe the popular Dervis will be a valuable asset to the new group and boost its electorate ahead of the 3 November elections.

YTP Chairman Cem has repeatedly said that he would like to join forces with the man generally described as the main architect behind the IMF-backed economic rescue program. But Dervis is keeping Turkey in suspense about his plans.

The outgoing minister, who yesterday met with Cem and Ozkan, has so far refused to say whether he will formally join the YTP, although he has made it clear he wants to work together with the new formation.

With 61 seats, Cem's party is currently the fifth-largest in parliament and is one of the few groups that will compete for votes on the left ahead of the November poll. In a bid to widen his electoral platform, Cem last week announced plans to work together with the Democratic Turkey Party, or DTP, a small center-right group headed by former diplomat Mehmet Ali Bayar.

A total of 23 parties are expected to take part in the election, including the pro-Islamic Justice and Progress Party of former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a longtime favorite of opinion polls.

Dervis, who says his heart is "on the center-left," pledged on 10 August "not to enter politics for the sake of politics," but rather to take part "in a political debate and movement that could generate economic solutions" for Turkey.

"I will work for the creation of an alternative, an alternative that can be created from the existing alternatives and that would reflect and assimilate a modern, social, and liberal understanding that could truly come to power on its own in Turkey," Dervis said.

Dervis did not mention any specific party he could join or support in the run-up to the poll during the press conference he held to announce his resignation.

The conservative "Hurriyet" newspaper today quoted him as asking YTP leaders Cem and Ozkan for "two more days" before he decides whether to join forces with them.

Also today, another mainstream Turkish daily, "Milliyet," quoted Dervis -- who has repeatedly stressed that he does not consider himself a politician -- as saying that he needs to remain outside political parties "for a while."

Reflecting the increasing pressure put on the former economy minister, DTP leader Bayar today said that everybody is waiting for Dervis's next step. "The decision Dervis will make is important for Turkey," Anadolu news agency quoted Bayar as saying.

Meanwhile, Turkey's traditionally volatile markets reacted calmly to Dervis's move, losing a mere 1.3 percent by midday today. Financial experts do not expect any panic following the weekend resignation.

Anticipating Dervis's decision, analysts have long said they do not see the economic-recovery program as depending on the former World Banker alone.

International lenders were also long accustomed to the idea that Dervis would quit. Witness the decision made on 8 August by the IMF to approve a new $1.1 billion installment loan to help Turkey -- the fund's largest debtor, after Brazil -- overcome its economic crisis.

Newly appointed Economy Minister Turker pledged yesterday to pursue efforts to implement IMF-backed reform programs and said Ankara's relations with the fund will remain unchanged. He also ruled out any populist spending ahead of the November poll. "We are determined to continue implementing the [IMF-backed] program without a single concession [on our part]. For us, this will be the only possible political option. We will not tolerate any move that could erode confidence [that this program] will be implemented or that could lead to a different implementation. Especially with the election approaching, we will not put into practice any kind of electoral economy," Turker said.

Turkey's lawmakers cut short their summer recess last month to decide on a date for early elections and to adopt a string of reforms needed to pave the way for membership talks with the EU. They held another emergency session on 8 August to vote on an extra budget worth some $93 million to help cover the cost of the early poll. Most of this sum will be distributed among political parties vying for seats in the next legislature, while the remaining money will go to the electoral commission.

In a bid to reassure investors and voters, Ecevit said on 11 August that he expects his new economy minister to concentrate his efforts on boosting domestic production and ensuring that income is distributed fairly among Turkey's 68 million citizens.

But with less that three months before the poll, which political analysts predict could turn into an electoral rout for most of Turkey's traditional parties, it could be too late for the veteran 77-year-old leader.

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