Gloss begins to fade on Ciller's premiership

THE VULTURES are beginning to circle over the floundering seven-month-old premiership of Tansu Ciller, who rose to power as the glossy symbol of everything that Turkey would like to be but is now more a reminder of what it has failed to achieve.

Nothing seemed to go right for the youthful 47-year-old in January. The Turkish lira collapsed by 20 per cent, the stock market crashed to half its peak, inflation rose and interest rates soared - all only days after she had vowed that the opposite would happen.

If this were not galling enough for someone who has made much of her status as a professor of economics, even the fates seemed to be against her when Turkey's long-awaited first satellite was destroyed soon after take-off on board a mal- functioning Ariane rocket.

More disturbing, perhaps, has been Mrs Ciller's reaction to adversity - blaming everyone, it seems, except herself - her headstrong style and her fiscal policies. On Monday she shut herself up into her palatial yali by the Bosphorus as her central bank governor resigned in a slanging match about who was responsible for the mess.

Pressure is piling on to Turkey's first female prime minister. Her ruling True Path Party is in such disarray that it has virtually disappeared from the mainly Kurdish south-east of Turkey. In Istanbul, one group of angry constituents even hijacked and ate her lunch on its way to a back office where she was discussing candidates for the municipal elections in March.

The elections will be seen as an important signpost to Mrs Ciller's and Turkey's future in the political vacuum that was opened up after the death of President Turgut Ozal last April. In most cities, opinion polls show the True Path in second or third place behind the two other right-wing parties, Mr Ozal's old Motherland Party and the pro-Islamist Welfare Party. Tensions are growing with her predecessor as leader of the True Path Party, President Suleyman Demirel. One man she beat to replace Mr Demirel in June, Koksal Toptan, is making it clear he thinks that he is the best alternative.

'It is now clear that Mrs Ciller cannot govern Turkey,' said Mesut Yilmaz, the chief opposition leader and a powerful force now that most Turks have forgotten that he achieved little more during his recent period as premier.

It is too soon to talk of alternatives, however. Mrs Ciller is still feisty and believes she is far from finished, despite a note of desperation in increasingly frequent news conferences called to summon up the genie of media support that helped her so much before.

Foreign policy may prove a timely distraction and she has firm friends in the powerful Turkish armed forces. Newspapers have speculated that an air force blitz against a rebel base in northern Iraq was timed to take minds off the biggest devaluation of their currency since 1980 - something Mrs Ciller vigorously denies.

Then there is Mrs Ciller's visit to Bosnia with her Pakistani counterpart, Benazir Bhutto. Turkish media say that the United Nations has begged them not to go because it would provoke new bloodbaths. But Mrs Ciller knows her trip will be highly popular in a country where many of the elite have Ottoman-era links with the Balkans and all feel that the West has short-changed the Bosnian Muslims.

And although Mrs Ciller's misguided policies hastened this month's fiscal crisis, the crash was part of a long process. It is symptomatic of Turkey's ills that, instead of debating the underlying problems of growing trade and budget deficits, almost all the media have been consumed with the question of which banks bought how many central bank dollars at what price before the devaluation.

'The government decision-making system is completely locked up. I didn't see any point in staying on. A strong political will is needed,' said the former governor of the central bank when he announced his resignation. It is a warning that all Turkey would do well to take seriously, not just Mrs Ciller.