Turks despair of a system 'made for the Twenties': Outmoded state institutions and a tenuous hold on democracy have brought rising tensions, Hugh Pope writes from Istanbul

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'THE MEN of the Turkish armed forces are in love with democracy,' insisted the Commander-in-Chief, Dogan Gures, this weekend, attempting to dampen down one of Turkey's most frenzied recent bouts of speculation about another military coup.

Classic army intervention - as in 1960, 1971 and 1980 - seems most unlikely, and General Gures said he guaranteed it could only happen 'over my dead body'. But highly charged statements about coup scenarios that fill newspaper front pages speak volumes about Turks' unease.

This has been fuelled by fierce fighting with Kurdish rebels in the country's south-east, frightening levels of urban terrorism and the gradual break-up of the coalition led by the Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel. Little is left of the surge of optimism that swept Turkey when the centre-right Mr Demirel was elected 11 months ago. Mr Demirel set up a coalition with his Social Democrat rivals committed to broad institutional human rights and democratic reforms. Virtually nothing has been done.

'There is no need to panic,' said Mr Demirel. 'You are on the boat of democracy. Don't let this boat make you seasick. You cannot get off.'

But, as the former prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, put it in a speech, 'There is a much more serious crisis than that in the government: that in the state. The President, government and general staff have very different approaches . . . while parliament is left out of policy-making altogether.'

Some take the debate much further, saying rising tension results from gridlock in the institutions of the centralised Turkish nationalist state founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. One school of thought advocates wholesale renewal and the foundation of a 'Second Republic'.

'The 1923 state is finished. Kemalism is dead, but we can't get rid of the body,' said Mehmet Altan, an economics professor and newspaper columnist who launched the 'Second Republic' debate. 'The social class dominating Turkey has remained the same since 1923. The idea is a complete change, and to erase the influence of the army.'

The state, Mr Altan alleged, now existed for little more than the pillage of state funds. The education system was producing robots. Taxes were being paid by just one person in four and a third of the population was not covered by social security, he said. 'What we need is a revolution,' he added.

President Turgut Ozal, in his years as prime minister from 1984 to 1987, did start a decentralising revolution. One of the world's most inward-looking countries was opened up to the outside world, economic barriers were broken down, US-educated technocrats shook up moribund state agencies and Turkey became something of a presence in the world.

But Mr Ozal and his family became mired down in domestic politics and intrigues, leaving the state machine largely intact. Since then, important programmes, such as privatisation, have turned into a fiasco - in the last attempted sell-off, the buyer's cheque bounced.

The political process seems unable to produce solutions. Istanbul grows by 250,000 people a year, but planning is virtually non-existent, with concrete spreading out on state land divided up by the 'land mafia'.

For more than two years quasi-legal television stations have been broadcasting what they like into Turkey, financially crippling the state television station, whose shows are now watched by only a quarter of the population.

Less than 10 deputies can be found in some debates in parliament, reflecting what one deputy said was a feeling that 'parliament is a complete waste of time'. Some politicians are offering to take up where Mr Ozal left off, saying fundamental changes are needed in a 60 per cent urban state of 60 million people, little changed since Ataturk founded it to govern 13 million people, 80 per cent of whom were villagers.

'Turkey was made for the Twenties. That was good for then. Anyone getting off the train from Istanbul with a tie was made an under-secretary,' said Deniz Baykal, the new leader of the rejuvenated Republican Populist Party. 'But Turkey can no longer be governed from Ankara. We need a new administrative system.'

Few, however, are ready to challenge the role of the army, the historic backbone of the Kemalist state, whose profile has steadily risen during the last year of worsening conflict with Kurdish rebels in the south-east.

Cabinet meetings have recently been overshadowed by the National Security Council, technically an advisory body that joins civilian leaders with the military chiefs. A council meeting on Friday called for unity in the fight against separatist Kurds and made thinly veiled threats of legal action against the one legal Kurdish radical party.

'In the south-east, the military is calling the shots already,' wrote Yalcin Dogan, an editor of the Milliyet daily newspaper. 'In other words, what need is there for a coup?'