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Turkey: Defections Rock Ruling Party, Increase Pressure On Ecevit

Turkey's political crisis deepened over the past two days with the resignation of several cabinet ministers of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party, or DSP. In addition, a string of DSP deputies also left the party, significantly affecting the balance of forces in parliament. DSP officials say they are expecting more resignations today after conservative Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz joined his voice to that of far-right leader Devlet Bahceli and called for early legislative elections.

Prague, 9 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's coalition cabinet is teetering on the verge of collapse, less than 24 hours after three of its members -- all of them members of his Democratic Left Party, or DSP -- handed in their resignations and as new resignations followed today.

In remarks broadcast on state television this morning, Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz said Turkey has entered a "political crisis," leaving him and other political leaders with the task of getting over it "with the least-possible damage for Turkey."

Using even stronger imagery, Turkish media described the latest events as an "earthquake" set to seriously affect the country's political landscape.

Adding to the overall sense of urgency, the International Monetary Fund yesterday urged Ankara, its biggest debtor, to implement a three-year, $16 billion emergency aid package meant to help Turkey out of its worst economic crisis since the end of World War II.

The latest political turmoil was prompted by the surprise resignation of Deputy Prime Minister and State Minister Husamettin Ozkan, a man believed to have been Ecevit's closest aid for the past 11 years.

In a statement issued yesterday after a meeting with Ecevit, Ozkan said he was stepping down on Ecevit's request, suggesting a rift over Turkey's economic and political situation.

Shortly thereafter, DSP State Minister Recep Onal and DSP Culture Minister Istemihan Talay said they, too, were stepping down and relinquishing their DSP parliamentary seats. Under the constitution, the prime minister and all cabinet members are chosen from among parliamentarians.

Addressing a crowd of supporters in his hometown of Zonguldak, State Minister Hasan Gemici today said he is also resigning from both the government and the DSP. He explained that his decision was caused by disenchantment with Ecevit's leadership. "A lack of confidence in the Turkish people and a lack of hope are making our country's problems even more difficult. Up until today, I was expecting that DSP secretary-general and prime minister, Mr. Ecevit, would take new steps to clear the way for the party, the government, and for Turkey. Yet, this has not happened," Gemici said.

In addition to these cabinet resignations, more than 20 other DSP parliamentarians, including parliamentary Deputy Chairman Ali Iliksoy, left the ranks of Ecevit's party, which, up until yesterday, had only a one-seat majority in the 550-member parliament, the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

As a result of the ongoing shake-up, the DSP has already dropped to second position with fewer than 100 seats, far behind Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli's far-right Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, which has 127 seats.

DSP officials say they are expecting more resignations in the near future, but claim that the overall number of defectors should not exceed 30.

Ecevit, who is seen as the man responsible for the current crisis, has not commented on the latest political developments. Today, he appointed DSP State Minister Sukru Sina Gurel to replace Ozkan. Other vacant ministerial posts were also filled.

The present turmoil follows weeks of speculation over the coalition cabinet's future, prompted by concerns about the prime minister's health. The 77-year-old Ecevit has been absent from office for most of the past two months amid a long series of ailments, including intestinal troubles, a muscular nervous disorder, and blood clots in one leg.

Ecevit has been facing increasing pressure in recent weeks -- from the media, the business community, and his own party -- to step down before his term expires in April 2004. Yet, the three-time prime minister has persistently rejected calls for his resignation, arguing his early departure would plunge the country into greater chaos.

At stake is not only the future of Turkey's economy but also key reforms needed to qualify for entry into the European Union.

Ankara, which applied for EU membership in 1987 but stands last among 13 candidates, wants Brussels to set a date for the start of accession talks by the end of this year. But the EU insists that Turkey first proceed with steps to abolish the death penalty and bestow greater cultural rights to its 12-million-strong Kurdish minority. The EU also wants Turkey to show more flexibility on the issue of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

In tune with the military, which wields considerable influence over Turkish politics, far-right leader and senior coalition partner Bahceli is opposed to such changes, which, he argues, pose a threat to the country's national interests.

Addressing an MHP meeting in the western city of Bursa on 7 July, Bahceli said early legislative elections should be organized in on 3 November. It was the first time a cabinet member had made such a suggestion.

In a statement read to the press the next day, MHP senior official Koray Aydin said Bahceli would take steps to convene an emergency parliamentary session to debate the possibility of an early poll while leaving the present cabinet untouched. "The chairman of the MHP parliamentary group [Bahceli] summoned me to the prime minister's office and instructed me to start collecting the required number of signatures from MHP deputies to call an emergency session of the Turkish Grand National Assembly on 1 September," Aydin said.

The constitution requires the signatures of only 110 deputies for the convention of emergency sessions of parliament. Should the National Assembly decide to move ahead with early polls, a simple majority of votes would be required.

Bahceli's motives suddenly to call for early elections are not clear. He had repeatedly rejected the possibility before, saying no election should be held before the mandate of the present legislature expires in April 2004.

On 7 July, the MHP leader told his supporters he was prompted by an urgent need to end political uncertainty. Yet, critics point out that should elections be organized in November, it would not leave the new legislature enough time to vote in more democratic laws before the EU decides in December on a time frame for its enlargement process.

Deputy Prime Minister Yilmaz, who oversees relations with Brussels in Ecevit's cabinet and heads the third coalition party (the Motherland Party), described Bahceli's proposed timetable as "totally unacceptable from the viewpoint of Turkey's relations with the EU." Therefore, Yilmaz said, should an early poll be organized, it should take place no later than late September.

Political analysts also believe Bahceli's proposal is aimed at preventing alleged plans to oust the MHP from the current coalition and replace it with former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's True Path Party (DYP), the largest opposition group in parliament.

Experts argue that such a scenario would allow Turkey to proceed rapidly with EU-oriented reforms, since Ciller is seen as generally more favorable to the legal changes demanded by Brussels than Bahceli. Such plans also envisage that a new prime minister would be appointed to replace Ecevit.

Among possible contenders to succeed the veteran leader, Turkish media cite outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Ozkan, State Minister Kemal Dervis, and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.

Reuters quoted financial analysts as saying that Turkish markets, which registered a nearly 5 percent drop yesterday in the morning session amid renewed concerns over political instability, would welcome any coalition cabinet that would include Dervis or Cem.

Cem, a heavyweight in Ecevit's DSP and a prominent advocate of EU-related reforms, cut short his vacation to return to Ankara and hold consultations with Dervis today.

A former World Bank director, Dervis returned to his native country in March of last year at Ecevit's request to take over the reins of the economy and spearhead the government's efforts to extirpate Turkey from financial turmoil. Dervis, who is not affiliated with any existing party, has repeatedly said in recent months that he was considering entering politics.

In an interview with CNN-Turk on 7 July, Ecevit responded to media speculation regarding Dervis's alleged political ambitions by saying a government of technocrats would not be suitable for Turkey.

The prime minister once again rejected calls for his resignation, a stance reiterated by the DSP parliamentary group's deputy chairman, Emrehan Halici, on 8 July. "We are not considering early elections. We believe it is necessary that elections should be held as scheduled," Halici said.

Political analysts believe, however, that recent defections within the ruling party have left Ecevit with few alternatives.

"With the DSP in such a bad shape, the only option left for Ecevit is to accept early elections and try to lead the country to the polls," journalist Ilnur Cevik wrote in today's "Turkish Daily News."

"The genie is out of the bottle, and you can't put it back in," echoed columnist Ertugrul Ozkok in "Hurriyet" daily, also commenting on the prospect of early polls.