A sword hangs over Turkey's coalition takes uncertain steps

HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Five months of political uncertainty ended in Turkey yesterday when parliament accepted the programme of a new centre-right coalition cabinet led by Mesut Yilmaz.

In the shifting sands of Turkish politics, however, one uncertainty was only replaced by another. The 257-207 vote in Ankara underlined the fact that this is a minority government, over which 80 abstentions hang like a sword that could cut short its life at any time.

Most of these abstentions are controlled by the veteran Democratic Left Party leader, Bulent Ecevit, who says he is helping the centre-right to power purely because he wants to keep out the pro-Islamic Welfare Party. The pro-Islamists came top with 158 deputies in general elections in December.

Mr Ecevit has already exerted pressure on the uninspiring five-year government programme hurriedly put together by Mr Yilmaz's Motherland Party and his coalition partners, the True Path Party of the outgoing Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller.

He forced the new government, minutes before its programme was to be read out to parliament, to omit a promise to "privatise" the three main social security agencies, crippled by political shenanigans and officially due to run up a deficit of more than pounds 2bn this year.

Mr Ecevit and his right-hand man Mumtaz Soysal are now also in a strong position to keep up the legal and political challenges that have hamstrung Turkey's efforts to privatise loss-making state industries for most of the past decade.

Nevertheless, the coalition protocol is full of worthy vows to privatise public-sector companies and banks, to bring inflation running at 80 per cent down to single figures, to widen the tax base, to freeze government hiring, to move to eight years of compulsory education, to devolve more powers to local government and to pursue full membership of the European Union.

An early test is likely to be the need before 31 March for parliament to renew Operation Provide Comfort II, the Allied 80-plane force, including Royal Air Force Jaguars, which protects the Kurds of northern Iraq.

Western diplomats believe that the force's mandate will be renewed pending a government promise to review its operational parameters. Turkish diplomats see it as the backbone of a policy that must above all protect Turkey from another 1991-style influx of Kurdish refugees. But Mr Ecevit believes that the force is nurturing the seed of an independent Kurdistan that could spread to south-eastern Turkey.

This fear of the Kurds also runs through the government's pusillanimous policy on the 11-year conflict between Kurdish rebel guerrillas and the security forces that has killed 20,000 people. Reflecting the largely right-wing, conservative flavour of the Cabinet, the programme only speaks of "stopping terrorism" and "economic and social measures", talk that has done little to convert Turkey's expensively gained recent military advantage into a lasting peace.

During the parliamentary debate, the new Prime Minister gave an uncharacteristically passionate speech, apologising to the Turkish Kurd author Yashar Kemal and promising to change laws that resulted in a court handing down a 20- month suspended jail sentence for one of his articles.

But the claps from the government benches were decidedly lukewarm, as was the response to Mr Yilmaz's additional apology for the way the Ankara police attacked a peaceful demonstration of teachers seeking union rights.

"At first it seems there is nothing missing from this programme. But there is something that has not been given enough importance . . . democracy," the left-wing newspaper Cumhuriyet said.

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