Demirel tipped as Turkey's new president: Dismay that so many Western leaders turned down invitations to Turgut Ozal's funeral could affect future relations

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The Independent Online
CRIES of Allahu Akbar (God is most great) drowned the strains of Chopin's funeral march as tens of thousands of Turks mourned their President, Turgut Ozal, buried yesterday outside the old walls of Constantinople. The sombre crowds epitomised the enigmatic mixture of East and West in Ozal's character and in Turkey today: bearded Islamists in turbans among straight-backed military men, modern women in their finery among traditionalists in full-length black chador veils, shopkeepers among city slickers in dark glasses and shiny get-rich-quick suits.

Few foreign leaders attended the Istanbul burial, with only the Presidents of Azerbaijan and the small Caucasus state of Chechenya in evidence. Poor foreign turnout at Wednesday's state funeral in Ankara also boded ill for Turkey's future faith in Western declarations of friendship.

The former US secretary of state, James Baker, and Germany's President, Richard von Weizsacker, did attend, while Britain was represented by Baroness Chalker. But neither the former US president George Bush nor Baroness Thatcher, once friends and ideological stablemates of the reformist Ozal, or royals like the Prince of Wales or Princess Margaret, who often holiday in Turkey, bothered to take up invitations to come.

'So what's all this about Mr Ozal being a great friend of the West? Where is everyone now? Aren't you ashamed?' asked a young woman working in a pharmacy as Ozal's body passed by on a gun-carriage, followed by crowds chanting 'Allahu Akbar' and 'Muslim Turkey'.

Mourners at the mosque of Mehmet the Conqueror were led by Turkey's veteran Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, 68, whom the Istanbul mass-circulation newspapers have already anointed as the successor to Ozal, who died on Saturday of a heart attack. The cautious and conservative Mr Demirel has said nothing openly, but he is encouraging speculation about his candidacy. He may make a statement today, or at the latest by Tuesday, when the 30-day period for parliament to elect the next president starts.

A more difficult question is who will succeed Mr Demirel as prime minister without upsetting the coalition government between his True Path Party and Erdal Inonu's Social Democrat Populist Party, which has ruled Turkey since 1991.

A poll in yesterday's Hurriyet newspaper said nearly half the population would like the post to go to the True Path Party's Husamettin Cindoruk, the independent-minded Speaker of parliament and acting president. But Mr Cindoruk has differences with Mr Demirel and Mr Demirel's favourite protege, the businessman-politician Cavit Caglar. Mr Demirel may prefer to give the premiership to his loyal, elderly Interior Minister, Ismet Sezgin. Istanbul intellectuals have greeted this idea with horror, remembering stagnation in 1989-91 after Ozal was elected President and installed a malleable prime minister who became the butt of every joke in Turkey.

The Turkish prime minister is theoretically the chief executive, and Mr Demirel's main criticism of Ozal was over his alleged interference in the day-to-day running of the country. Ironically, if he becomes president, Mr Demirel would soon have to sign laws currently going through parliament that were aimed to reduce the president's powers.

Luckily, most diplomats believe that Ozal's death and political conundrums in the capital, Ankara, seem unlikely to provoke the same kind of infighting that dragged the country towards chaos and military coups in the past.

Both the reformist centre-right Motherland Party founded by Ozal and the pro-Islamic Welfare Party may see their shares of the right-wing vote increase, but there is a general reluctance to force early general elections or provoke a major crisis.

More importantly, Istanbul, Turkey's chief commercial and cultural city, has learnt to live without strong direction from Ankara under Ozal's modernising reforms. Posters advertising this dynamic city's bid for the Olympic Games in the year 2000 outnumbered those mourning Ozal. But every coffee-shop had its television respectfully tuned to live transmissions of Ozal's burial, broadcast on most of a dozen stations introduced by his taboo-breaking policies.

'It is not in the hands of Demirel any more. They already had 500 days of government to undo what Mr Ozal did, and they couldn't,' said Gunes Taner, a long-time Ozal intimate. 'It's in the hands of the 60 million people of Turkey now.'

(Photograph omitted)