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Crisis grows in Turkey over rise of Islam

The embattled Turkish Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, was yesterday facing a spiralling crisis, inside and outside his government.

Turkey's increasingly jumpy generals, who object to his bid to steer Turkey on to a more Islamic course, issued fresh warnings to his government at the weekend. Two of his ministers also resigned.

The timing of the rebels' departure owed little to chance. Yalin Erez and Yildirim Aktuna, True Path ministers of trade and health respectively, tended their resignations just before Mr Erbakan and members of his government gathered for an eight-hour meeting with senior military figures on Saturday.

At the meeting, the generals, self-appointed guarantors of Turkey's secular identity, told Mr Erbakan that they expect him to reverse attempts to give Turkey a more pious complexion. The resignations of Mr Erez and Mr Aktuna (the latter a former army officer), were reminders that this demand is supported by some within the government.

The immediate reason for the fuss is Mr Erbakan's failure to implement "recommendations" delivered to him by the generals in February. Since then, squabbles over these proposals - which include bans on Islamic-style clothing and whiskers - have strained ties between the True Path, a coalition party which largely supports their implementation, and Mr Erbakan's Welfare Party, which does not. The most contentious of the recommendations is a crackdown on religious schools. These, the military fears, are producing a generation of Turks attracted more by fundamentalist Islam than the pro-West principles bequeathed by Ataturk, Turkey's secular founder.

Since February, Mr Erez and Mr Aktuna have loudly supported the military's line, upping their criticism of the Welfare Party and urging Tansu Ciller, the Foreign Minister and leader of the True Path Party, to withdraw from the government. But Mrs Ciller has shown little appetite for this idea. Her removal from the party leadership is cited by the opposition Motherland Party as a pre- condition for a fresh coalition.

Naturally, Mrs Ciller, herself a former prime minister, is not drawn to this option. She still hopes to assume a rotating premiership from Mr Erbakan next summer.

The question now is whether Mr Erez and Mr Aktuna can succeed in their stated aims of bringing down the government, or whether they will share the fate of other dissidents who have failed to muster sufficient support from colleagues to pose a threat to Mrs Ciller. This is partly because of the efficiency with which Mrs Ciller purged her party of potential mischief-makers when she won the leadership in 1993. It is also due to the absence of a credible alternative to the present government. Ministers who have resigned must persuade other dissatisfied True Path deputies that a new coalition can be formed.

While Mr Erez and Mr Aktuna spend the next few days wooing potential defectors, Mrs Ciller hopes to mollify the generals by offering them a timetable for implementing their recommendations.