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Turkey: Shaky Coalition Barely Survives

Prague, 28 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Over the weekend, Turkey's shaky Islamic-led coalition government barely survived its most dangerous crisis since taking office ten months ago. But many analysts say it is simply a matter of a short time before Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamic Welfare (Rafah) Party, will be forced to resign.

On Saturday, Turkey's military-dominated National Security Council convinced Erbakan to agree to ask parliament for changes in the educational system aimed at reducing the impact of Islamic religious teaching. In an eight-hour session, the Council reportedly showed the Premier a video of a play recently staged by Welfare sympathizers that incited the audience to take up arms against what was said to have been called the "pagan" Turkish military. The Council also gave the Government up to six months to fire Islamic militants in state institutions and prohibit radical Islamic propaganda in the media.

Turkey's National Security Council includes President Suleyman Demirel as well as five senior military officers who seek above all to preserve the secular traditions established more than 70 years ago by Kemal Ataturk. The Council is nominally an advisory body, but actually the nation's most powerful institution.

Three times in the past 37 years, Turkey's Western-oriented military has taken direct control of the government to maintain, it said, the stability of the republic. This time the military appears to prefer, so far at least, persuasion and pressure to an outright coup d'etat. After Erbakan refused to accede to its demands two months ago, the military escalated a carefully calibrated campaign against Islamic radicalism, but without threats of direct intervention.

Erbakan is under pressure from his supporters as well as his adversaries. Yesterday Turkish newspapers quoted Oguzhan Asilturk, a Welfare parliamentarian and Erbakan's closest aide, as saying his party would see that. He says, the measures demanded by the National Security Council "will not pass in Parliament." Other Welfare deputies also pledged to fight the measures.

In addition, two conservative members of Erbakan's Government resigned Saturday in protest over both what they consider the Premier's stalling tactics and their own True Path Party's cooperation with Welfare. Trade Minister Yalim Erez and Health Minister Yildirim Aktuna each suggested there would soon be further government resignations. Erez said that "it is not easy to repair damages to a democratic, secular republic....We cannot risk Turkey's future."

Their departure angered True Path's leader Tansu Ciller, currently Foreign Minister as well as Deputy Premier. She is due to take over the government in 14 months under an arrangement worked out when the coalition was established last June. Ciller said it was not up to Erez and Aktuna "to determine the future of the Government."

Disunity among and within Turkey's secularist parties last year allowed Erbakan to form his government. The Welfare Party had only narrowly won a plurality of votes in the last general elections (Dec., 1995), gaining 21 percent of the vote. But the secular parties could not agree on a coalition of their own, and President Demirel had no choice but to ask Welfare to head a government.

Many Turkish commentators now believe that government's survival is a matter of days or weeks, but not months. Writing in the daily "Sabah" yesterday, the influential analyst Hassan Cemal pronounced Erbakan's coalition "dead but still breathing with the help of an artificial respirator." But he added that "tension will continue as long as Erbakan does not give up power." In another paper, commentator Ilnur Cevik, a former Erbakan supporter, admitted that "the not trust Welfare." Writing about the government in the past tense, Cevik said: "Welfare not only failed to undertake any reforms but...gave the impression of covering up serious corruption charges."

Most secular-minded Turkish analysts believe that it is the military, and not feuding politicians, that will finally decide the Government's future. They say that military commanders are wary of Erbakan, whom they see as having a hidden agenda aimed at destroying Turkish secularism. They also say that military leaders have lost faith in Ciller, whom they consider corrupt.