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Iron lady takes on Turkey's old-boy network

TURKEY, a Muslim nation long dominated by politics brewed in the male depths of smoke-filled coffee-houses and boardrooms, may produce its first woman prime minister today.

Tansu Ciller, a rich, 47-year-old American-educated professor of economics, is a candidate for the leadership of the ruling True Path party. 'I have won every battle I have ever entered,' she boldly told viewers in a live television debate among candidates to replace the former prime minister Suleyman Demirel, who became president after the death of Turgut Ozal in April.

Opinion polls show her to be the most popular choice, especially among women and the young. Unfortunately for Mrs Ciller, it is not the people doing the choosing, but the party's 1,150 old-fashioned delegates, more than half of whom are over 50 and 94 per cent male.

'Our delegates do not listen to the media,' was the grumpy forecast of President Demirel who, despite promises of impartiality, has been forced to admit his preference for old-style Interior Minister Ismet Sezgin, aged 64.

The old sorcerer of Turkish politics is clearly rueing the day he took on Mrs Ciller to brighten his ageing image before the 1991 elections. Commentators are rolling out an old Turkish adage for his predicament: 'He who does not beat his daughter will surely beat his knee.'

Mrs Ciller has certainly outmanoeuvred her master. Mr Demirel had made her state minister in charge of the economy, a fall-guy's job since he made all the real decisions himself. But she managed to avoid disaster.

Whether she wins or loses the premiership race, just being there has publicly registered women's great advances in Turkey in the past five years.

Although the founder of republican Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, granted civil rights to women in the 1920s, women's movements and the state have lagged behind. Turkish schools still teach that the father is head of the family. There are only eight women in the 450-seat parliament. The bureaucracy has only just started to appoint female ambassadors, and until last year women had to obtain permission from their husbands to travel abroad.

Despite this, female business executives and stockbrokers are now common. More than half of Turkey's doctors are women, one of the highest ratios in the world.

Mrs Ciller's ambitious, headstrong style - the Turkish press sometimes refers to her as Turkey's Iron Lady or Mrs Thatcher - made her unpopular at university and among Central Bank and Treasury bureaucrats. Controversy about property dealings that made millionaires of her and her ex-banker husband are still being dealt with by the courts.

'The boys' club will try to crush her,' said Leyla Alaton, a company manager. 'But she is a good role model, and will encourage younger people to aspire to new thinking.'

(Photograph omitted)