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Turkey: New Prime Minister On A Tightrope

Prague, 1 July 1997 (RFE/RL) -- There is an old proverb that says: be careful what you wish for, it might just come true. Mesut Yilmaz this week got his wish and has become, for the third time, Turkey's prime minister. His sense of victory must be all the sweeter, in that it comes at the expense of his arch-rival, True Path Party leader Tansu Ciller.

But there will be no customary honeymoon period for Yilmaz and the fragile coalition he has assembled. Observers are already questioning whether the alliance between Yilmaz's Motherland Party and two parties from the left and right will be any more durable than the short marriage of convenience between Ciller and the Islamists, which preceeded it.

President Suleyman Demirel surprised many when he selected Yilmaz as Prime Minister-designate. The decision prompted outrage from Tansu Ciller and caretaker Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who were ready to attempt another conservative-Islamist alliance. Few expected Yilmaz to succeed in assembling enough deputies for a parliamentary majority. But Yilmaz skillfully exploited the tension between Ciller and Erbakan to coax enough defectors to his side.

That may have been difficult, but observers say the truly hard part, has only just begun. The military, which forced Erbakan out of office by almost threatening a coup, continues to throw its weight around. Just this week, Yilmaz's new government drafted a protocol bringing its position in line with the generals.

The government vowed to pursue the costly campaign against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerillas in the east of the country. The protocol endorsed the military's view that the Kurdish insurgency has no ethnic basis, but is instead the result of economics and nebulous "foreign plans and provocations." This is a change of position for Yilmaz, who in the past supported ethnic cultural rights for the Kurds.

In addition to pacifying the military, Yilmaz will have to keep the leftist parties happy, just as international financial institutions recommend austerity measures to rein in inflation. The latest country report from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) says the government's chronic deficits must be cut in order to bring down the current inflation rate of 75 percent a year. The body recommends a complete overhaul of Turkey's bloated pension system and agricultural subsidy polcies and a speeding up of privatization. Failure to do so, warns the OECD, will countinue to reduce Turkey's credit worthiness, driving away foreign investment and bringing down standards of living.

But the Republican People's Party, a key leftist supporter of the Yilmaz government, opposes any reduction in the social safety net. Senior party member Ali Topuz warned Yilmaz this week that if his policies become too fiscally tight, the party will withdraw its support.

Of course, any reduction of social benefits will play into the hands of Erbakan's pro-Islam Welfare Party, which is already eyeing new elections. Now that he is out of power, say correspondents, Erbakan will be free to advocate his populist policies and may gain even wider support.

Yilmaz and his new government will face their first parliamentary vote of confidence next week. Even if Yilmaz survives, it is safe to say that he will have to devote most of his energies to political maneuvers, so his fragile coalition can stay afloat. The OECD's call for "powerful and decisive" policies is almost sure to go unheeded.