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Turkey: New Prime Minister Must Prepare For Elections And Aid Economy

Prague, 13 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Bulent Ecevit has taken over as prime minister in Ankara at a difficult time in Turkey's affairs.

After nearly seven weeks of political wrangling, Ecevit yesterday (Jan. 12) presented his minority, interim government's program to parliament. His task in the coming few months is twofold: he must lead the country into new elections on April 18, and at the same time seek to arrest the deterioration in Turkey's economy.

His small Democratic Left Party (DLP) is being supported in office by the two right-leaning entities, the Motherland Party of Mesut Yilmaz and the True Path Party of Tansu Ciller. With the support of those two former prime ministers, Ecevit is expected to pass a parliamentary confidence motion set for Sunday. Ecevit replaces a government led by Yilmaz, which had to resign last November over a scandal which involved allegations of contacts with organized crime.

Ecevit is taking over at a delicate moment for Turkey. The army, which sees itself as the guarantor of the country's modern secular state, has indicated that it might press for a ban on the Islamist-led Virtue Party. The Turkish military says the party, the biggest single group in parliament, poses a threat to democracy. Army leaders said at the weekend that Turkish democracy would be strengthened if political formations which oppose secularism are banned.

The Virtue Party came into being after another Islamist Party, the Welfare Party, was banned.

Economically, the moment is equally tense. Figures show that industrial production is declining in Turkey for the first time since 1994, which was a recession year. Key industries like textiles, steel production and leather are all affected.

One of Ecevit's top advisers, Ertugrul Cilagan told RFE/RL today the prime minister believes his primary task is to steer the country safely and without disturbances into the election. On the economic front, Cilagan said that because time is so short, Ecevit intends to focus his efforts on passing legislation already prepared under Yilmaz. Among the bills are those dealing with new banking sector regulations and social security reform. He also will present a budget for 1999, and continue the fight against inflation.

But Cilagan acknowledges that focusing the minds of the deputies will not be easy. That's because the present Ramadan holidays will take up time, and after that, election campaigning will begin.

"It means less than three months. Most of the parliamentarians will be candidates at the next election, and they will go to their home electorates for the election campaign, and it will be difficult to even find a quorum in parliament. But the government will try, with goodwill, and with the support of the two rightist parties, to pass two or three important bills."

As to Turkey's foreign policy under Ecevit, the main lines can be expected to remain the same. But Ecevit has already put his own stamp on that area also. Within the past few days he has criticized U.S. policy on Iraq, said Turkey will not be pushed around by the European Union, and reaffirmed the controversial policy of closer ties between Ankara and the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot republic.

So that's the program until April 18, but what of the longer term? It's known that Ecevit is hoping to boost his electoral strength in the voting, so as to remain in office but be less dependent on the support of his chief rivals.

Much depends on what sort of support the voters give to the Virtue Party, already the largest parliamentary grouping. Cilagan says his personal view is that Ecevit's Democratic Left, Virtue and Yilmaz's Motherland Party will all emerge about equally strong from the election.

He says Ecevit's thinking is that Virtue will not be able to increase its current number of seats:

"I think they (Virtue) are going to do well, but I do not believe they will increase their vote beyond the present 21 percent. That's because -- at least in Mr. Ecevit's point of view, which I don't share -- half the votes which Virtue gained in the December 1995 election were a form of protest vote from dissatisfied people."

Cilagan says he estimates that Virtue will gain some 17 or 18 percent of the vote. He notes they have many big city strongholds, including Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir.