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Ciller's luck sews coalition back together

Spirits rose and stock exchange prices soared in Turkey yesterday as the lucky streak of the conservative Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, saved her from a bruising political crisis.

Mrs Ciller's True Path Party started rebuilding the coalition that broke down on 20 September with Deniz Baykal's social democrat Republican People's Party. The main point of contention was resolved on Monday, when the right-wing police chief of Istanbul resigned.

"I think there will be no problem with the vote of confidence," said Mr Baykal's deputy, Adnan Keskin. Only a few weeks ago he was calling Mrs Ciller a "swindler and a clown". Mr Baykal said he could work with Turkey's first woman prime minister now that "her feet were back on the ground", after parliament rejected her attempt to form a minority government. Their two parties control 223 seats in the 450-seat parliament.

Mr Baykal then flew to Brussels to start work on the most pressing item on the agenda, persuading MEPs to accept a customs union with Turkey on 14 December.

The deal was agreed in March between Ankara and the European Commission. All but one or two laws have been completed in the process of harmonisation between Europe and its neighbour.

Turkey is a rapidly developing state of 65 million people, but its ambition to become a giant has been thwarted. Restrictive laws have jailed about 170 intellectuals and Kurdish nationalism has been repressed. The European Parliament has demanded reforms of the law against terrorism and the release of six Kurdish parliamentarians who were arrested last March.

Mrs Ciller has set her eyes on achieving the customs union."I feel the responsibility of finalising the customs union as a dagger raised behind my back", she said. "I believe that this partnership [with Mr Baykal] will bring us into customs union."

One reason why Mrs Ciller wants the customs union so much --and why her political rivals seem sometimes to want to torpedo it - is because of the big advantage that victory would give her in general elections due within the next year.

Her party has applied to bring the poll forward to 24 December. But there are doubts that Turkey can be ready before next spring, as a new election law must be prepared and the electoral rolls updated. The voting age was recently lowered to 18 and Turks abroad were also given the right to vote.

No party enjoys a big lead in the opinion polls, but continued success for Mrs Ciller means she may be able grab votes from her main rival on the right, Mesut Yilmaz, the leader of the Motherland Party. Mr Yilmaz yesterday condemned Mrs Ciller and her husband as the "Yali gang", a reference to the mansion owned by the Cillers; Mr Ciller once headed a state bank that collapsed with huge debts, and his wife made money from property developments.

Court cases against the Cillers have been eclipsed in the public mind by Mrs Ciller's dynamic personality, but neither aspect charms those who favour the simple rhetoric of the Islamists in the Welfare Party, which also is expected to do well in the election. Most commentators, however, believe that relatively good management of the councils they won last year will not easily convert into many more votes for their leader,Necmettin Erbakan.