Demirel wheels and deals to the top job: 'Safe pair of hands' to grapple with Turks' indifference

THE VETERAN prime minister, Suleyman Demirel, was elected President of Turkey yesterday to replace the late Turgut Ozal, a smooth and remarkable personal success but one which puts off any hope of reforms to Turkey's creaking machinery of government. The conservative Mr Demirel won 244 votes in the 450-seat parliament, just over the 226 absolute majority he needed. His nearest rival, Kamran Inan, won 94 votes.

'It's a victory for democracy,' Mr Demirel said as he emerged from a press of deputies kissing his hands. Seven times premier, twice deposed by the generals who watched his election from a balcony in parliament, the 68-year- old son of a peasant family must feel his 30 years in politics have been vindicated.

All parties voted in what was the least controversial Turkish presidential election for decades. Polls say more than 50 per cent of Turks support the presidency of this 'safe pair of hands' who exhausts all around him with his long working hours.

But rather than joy, the 101-gun salute for Mr Demirel stirred little more than indifference in Turkey. In intellectual and business circles, there is even anger at a political process as out of date as the top hat, white tie and tails that have been the badge of Mr Demirel's new office since the 1920s era of Kemal Ataturk.

Damaged by three military coups between 1960 and 1980 and Ozal's domineering style of government, parliament is functioning badly. Nobody seems responsible for anything, debates are poorly attended and bribery has become a way of life.

Mr Demirel himself is an old-style populist symbolised by the cynical catchword he coined in the unstable 1970s: 'Today is today, yesterday is yesterday.' Only last month he blithely admitted responsibility for paying out large sums of state money to a fund controlled by political friends and has had no qualms about making opportunistic, destabilising and hypocritical policy zigzags.

Despite vows to recognise Kurds or to 'line the walls of police stations with glass', Mr Demirel, known in Turkey as Baba (Father), has ruled out any devolution and shows little desire to change a system of government designed by Ataturk for a small and overwhelmingly rural population.

His minister of state for the economy, Tansu Ciller, says the key test of Mr Demirel's decisions is 'stability'. Eighteen months of this has left Turkey with dynamic growth of more than 5 per cent but inflation of nearly 60 per cent, rising wages, ballooning debt and an impression that the grey, untaxed economy has overtaken the official one. 'Stability just means inaction, everything is happening in spite of him,' said the head of one major Turkish group of companies. 'It's not even democracy any more. It's a padishah with a lot of minions scrubbing his feet.'

One newspaper has calculated that Mr Demirel's hand had been shaken or kissed by about 123,000 people since he returned to office in 1991. Mr Demirel has defined his future role as 'moving from the head of the government to the head of the executive', even though he criticised Ozal for doing exactly the same after his election in 1989.

Little is likely to move during a long, turgid summer of political intrigue. As President, Mr Demirel has to resign from his True Path Party. His successor will be chosen at a congress in June: the favourites are currently Mrs Ciller or the businessman-politician Cavit Caglar. Another congress is due in November, and the political agenda drags out to local elections in March next year.