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Turkey: Early Polls Seem Likely As Ruling Party Loses More Deputies

Uncertainty over Turkey's immediate political future heightened yesterday when Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit publicly acknowledged that his coalition government could collapse. The veteran leader's position looked ever more precarious as the exodus from his Democratic Left Party, in power for the past three years, reached a total of 69 deputies. The parliament's leadership also said it would go ahead with plans to call an emergency debate to discuss the possibility of early polls.

Prague, 16 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With no more absolute majority left in parliament, cabinet dissidents eyeing a rise to power and the prospect of early elections looming large, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's three-party coalition cabinet faces an uncertain future.

Already plagued by a 17-month-old economic crisis, Turkey has been plunged into political turmoil in recent days after a hemorrhaging of deputies and ministers from Ecevit's Democratic Left Party (DSP), once the largest group in the 550-seat Turkish parliament, the Grand National Assembly.

Within a week, a total of seven ministers and 52 other deputies resigned from the DSP, bringing the party to fourth position, far behind the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli, which has 127 seats.

All ministers in the present cabinet also hold parliamentary seats, the only exception being State Minister Kemal Dervis, a former World Bank director who returned to Turkey last year to take over the reins of the economy. Unlike other ministers, Dervis is not affiliated with any political party.

All seven cabinet members who resigned from the DSP over the past week have also relinquished their portfolios.

Most defectors are likely to join a new social-democrat movement launched last week by outgoing Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and former Deputy Prime Minister Husamettin Ozkan, a one-time close aide to Ecevit who also resigned last week. The group, described by most of Turkey's mainstream media as the "party of hope," is due to seek formal registration and hold its founding congress within the next few days.

With only 69 seats left as of today, the DSP is now 16 seats behind the main opposition group, the True Path Party (DYP) of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.

The ruling coalition made up of Ecevit's DSP; Bahceli's MHP; and Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's conservative Motherland Party (ANAP), which has 79 deputies in the legislature, now has only 275 seats in parliament and may be forced to step down if an absolute majority of deputies passes a vote of no confidence.

Turkey's Constitution reads that, in case of censure, the president shall appoint a new prime minister to form an interim cabinet within 45 days until new elections are held.

The 77-year-old Ecevit, whose faltering health sparked the current crisis, is facing growing pressure from the vast majority of parties, business groups, trade unions, and the media to step down amid concerns that the political uncertainty might derail Turkey's membership bid in the European Union and, more crucially, a $16 billion recovery program approved by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF program is aimed at helping Ankara sort out its worst economic crisis since the end of World War II.

The head of government has repeatedly said that he has no plans to step down before his mandate expires in April 2004 with that of the current legislature. Yet in an interview with the U.S. television news channel CNN International yesterday, Ecevit admitted to the possibility of the ruling coalition collapsing.

He said his own preference is to have the government stay in office for its full five-year term, i.e., until April 2004. But he said that "does not seem to be feasible." Later, however, Ecevit said that if a change of government is possible, it is not inevitable.

Almost all political groups now agree that polls are, indeed, inevitable, though there is no consensus on a time frame. Most recent opinion polls suggest that elections might benefit the Islamic opposition to the detriment of more traditional, secular parties.

On 1 July, parliament went on a three-month summer recess, but MHP Parliament speaker Omer Izgi said yesterday that in line with a 125-signature petition filed by Bahceli, the legislature will hold an emergency session on 1 September to discuss the possibility of polls on 3 November. However, for this session to take place, a quorum of 184 deputies, or one-third of parliament, has to be met.

Yilmaz, who oversees relations with Brussels in the cabinet, has criticized Bahceli's move, saying the time frame proposed by his rival coalition partner would not leave parliament enough time to pass laws required to qualify for entry into the European Union. Yilmaz is generally not favorable to early polls, but he has argued that should they become necessary, they should either take place as soon as possible to allow Turkey to meet the EU deadline, or after legal changes are voted on by parliament.

Brussels wants Ankara to further democratize its legislation before agreeing on a date for the start of accession talks. The European bloc is expected to review the progress achieved by all candidate members in mid-October and decide on the first wave of enlargement at a summit in Copenhagen in December.

Turkey, which applied for membership in 1987 and stands last among 13 would-be members, knows it stands no chance of being listed among countries that will be admitted to the EU in 2004. However, Ankara would like to start accession talks as soon as possible for entry into the bloc by 2010 at the latest.

Ecevit has argued that early polls may jeopardize achievements reached so far on the path toward the EU and believes no elections should be held, at least before the Copenhagen summit.

On 12 July, Ecevit appointed DSP Deputy Prime Minister Sukru Sina Gurel, a man known for his uncompromising attitude regarding the Cyprus issue, to replace outgoing Foreign Minister Cem. In an obvious attempt to reassure the EU, which has expressed concern over the current political turmoil, Gurel yesterday pledged there would be no substantial changes in Ankara's foreign policy. "There are traditional foundations in Turkey's foreign policy. No matter who the foreign minister is, the only changes in state policy can be nuances," Gurel said.

In an apparent bid to cut short rumors about his health, Ecevit gave a 45-minute live interview on 12 July to Turkey's NTV private television channel, in which he defended his choice of Gurel as foreign minister, saying it would not affect relations with Brussels. The prime minister also responded to critics who accuse him of clinging to power by claiming that his reluctance to call early polls is motivated by concerns over Turkey's future, not by political considerations. "We are not opposed to early polls in terms of our party's needs. But [our] government has launched very successful reforms in Turkey, which are being implemented at a fast pace. We are also considering adopting other reforms. Unfortunately, none of this will remain on the agenda because, if elections are to be held in early November, parties will be unable to think about reforms. They will be busy with the election campaign and Turkey, therefore, will lose a lot of time," Ecevit said.

Both Bahceli and Yilmaz have insisted that early elections should be held under the present cabinet. Yet, there was widespread speculation in Turkey in recent days that ANAP might decide to withdraw from the present coalition to precipitate the electoral process in a bid to turn early polls into a referendum on the EU.

Ecevit needs the support of Yilmaz and his fellow deputies to secure a parliamentary majority for his cabinet. However, ANAP's 79 votes in the legislature could also prove a valuable asset to the opposition should the latter attempt to topple the prime minister.

Yet, ANAP's defection would not necessarily mean the end of the cabinet.

Political experts point out that Turkey's political practices would then allow Ecevit to seek support outside the coalition, including among Ciller's opposition True Path Party, and replace outgoing ministers with representatives of other political groups.

By all accounts, much depends now on Ecevit's nationalist senior coalition partner.

In an interview published yesterday in the "Milliyet" daily newspaper, the prime minister candidly acknowledged that the future of his coalition is largely reliant on Bahceli's next steps.

Asked by columnist Derya Sazak about State Minister Dervis's political future, Ecevit reiterated that he wants his former economic adviser to remain in the cabinet for fear that his departure might derail the IMF-backed recovery program. But he added, "If Mr. Bahceli insists on saying that Dervis should resign, I will reassess my position."

The 53-year-old Dervis delivered his resignation to Ecevit on 11 July in a bid to join Cem and other DSP dissidents. But President Ahmet Necdet Sezer dissuaded him from leaving the cabinet after consulting with army chief of staff General Huseyin Kivrikoglu.

Ecevit, who warned earlier that Dervis would not be allowed to stay in the cabinet if he sides with the opposition, eventually fell in with Sezer and asked his minister to stay.

On 12 July, Bahceli described Dervis's overt support for Cem's political movement as "unethical" and demanded his departure. Speaking to reporters yesterday at the MHP's Ankara headquarters, the far-right leader reiterated his opposition to Dervis's remaining in the cabinet. "Minister Dervis was brought into [our] government as a technocrat. We believe his quest for political identity is natural. However, Mr. Dervis should be the first to realize the absurdity of the situation that will be created if he chooses to enter politics with a political identity. He should assess his position by drawing the necessary conclusions. We have said in the past that [his] situation is incompatible with political ethics, and we do not find it moral. We have not changed our position on this issue. It is up to the prime minister to evaluate Mr. Dervis's position," Bahceli said.

In remarks published on 13 July in the "Hurriyet" daily, Dervis said he would remain at his post "for the time being." But he made it quite clear that, if only for Ecevit's fresh hostility toward him, his days in the cabinet were numbered.

Dervis told "Hurriyet" that continuous squabbling among Ecevit's ill-assorted coalition represents an obstacle to reforms. All the country needs, he stressed, is "a political majority" to spearhead its efforts toward economic recovery and EU membership.