Mutiny in Ankara

4 minute read

When the Ottoman empire of the mid-19th century started coming apart at the seams, Russia’s Czar Nicholas I memorably dubbed it the “sick man” of Europe. Last week, the empire’s successor, Turkey, reeled in political chaos as its own sick man, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit — who suffers from a host of ailments linked to a chronic neurological disease — stubbornly clung to power.

With Ecevit’s three-party coalition teetering on the brink of collapse, his Democratic Left Party (D.S.P.) essentially split in two and parliament in recess, Ecevit, 77, defied a growing chorus of demands that he step down because of his poor health and absence from view in the past two months. By the weekend, more than 40 D.S.P. legislators had resigned, as had at least seven cabinet ministers. Most prominent among them was Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, a vigorous and young-looking 62, who announced that he and two other key figures — Economy Minister Kemal Dervis and former Deputy Prime Minister Husamettin Ozkan — had formed a new political reform movement to lead a social-democratic Turkey into full European Union membership.

“Ecevit was always honorable, and he will be remembered with gratitude,” Cem said. Ecevit, however, was not pleased to be viewed in the past tense after 45 years in politics. While conceding that he may well be forced out if resignations continue to deplete his coalition’s parliamentary numbers, Ecevit filled his cabinet vacancies. He also tried to quash the independent Dervis’ attempt to launch himself into politics by joining up with Cem, saying that Dervis could not both serve the government and oppose it. In the end, Dervis withdrew his resignation under pressure from President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who feared that if the architect of Turkey’s multibillion-dollar IMF rescue package were to go, so might the economy.

Short of an Ecevit resignation, parliament might be recalled to pave the way for new elections — due in April 2004, but almost certain to be held in late autumn. There lies the road ahead for Turkey as it recovers from the political earthquake triggered on July 8, when Ozkan set off the wave of resignations. With the country’s economy on life support and investor confidence badly shaken, Cem and Dervis are — with their considerable international credibility — critical to Turkey’s immediate future. Their presence is reassuring, too, as Turkey struggles to meet E.U. membership criteria, commands the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and possibly plays a vital role in any future U.S. attack on Iraq. But assembling a new government may be far from easy. Turkey has a proliferation of political parties, all hierarchical and resistant to change. None has a commanding majority that might make Sezer’s task easier if he needs to appoint a caretaker prime minister before the next elections take place. And, critically, under Turkey’s complicated electoral laws, a party needs to win more than 10% of the national vote to qualify for any seats in parliament.

While Cem would clearly like to succeed Ecevit, other parties also are interested in — and perhaps capable of — helping to shape a government. Apart from what’s left of the D.S.P., they include its right-wing coalition partners, the Nationalist Action Party and the Motherland Party. On the opposition side are the center-right True Path Party and Justice and Development, led by former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan and suspected by the military of having a worrying Islamist agenda.

With Turkey in such a political and economic mess, and its stability resting on the NATO-E.U.-IMF tripod, Cem’s new movement appears well placed to attract the talent necessary to lead the country into the post-Ecevit future. The danger, many feel, is that continuing uncertainty will undermine the hard work — much of it by Dervis — of recent years. The business community considers E.U. membership critical for Turkey, opening international money markets and encouraging direct foreign investment. “The European Union is the key to getting the economy right,” says Yavuz Canevi, chairman of Turk Economy Bank and a former Central Bank governor. “If Turkey manages to open negotiations with Brussels by December, this would transform Turkey’s international position dramatically.”

That is an optimistic view that voters, with their devalued lira and lack of faith in political parties, may be too weary to enjoy. As with past earthquakes, much damage has been done — but a great deal of pressure has also been released.

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