Islamists hold the cards in Turkish coalition poker game

HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Slowly but surely, Turkey's pro-Islamist Welfare Party is manoeuvring itself into a winning position in the high-stakes game of poker being played for the leading role in the next coalition government.

The smile on the face of the veteran Welfare Party leader, Necmettin Erbakan, is all the wider since his path to power is being cleared by a fiery dispute between the two centre-right leaders most Turks want to form a secular government together - the caretaker Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, and the Motherland Party leader, Mesut Yilmaz.

Today is the day when the constitution says a 45-day period to form the new government officially starts. If there is still no government at the end of the period, the President must call new elections.

In the 43 days that have passed since the indecisive elections on 24 December, both Mr Erbakan and Mrs Ciller have failed to find partners to form a coalition. Mr Yilmaz starts his rounds of talks today but, having burned his bridges with Mrs Ciller, it seems he may be forced into a coalition under Mr Erbakan.

Meanwhile, the Welfare Party's vote in the opinion polls has steadily risen to more than 21 per cent. If Turkey's neighbours and allies think the country is difficult to deal with under Mrs Ciller, they can expect a rougher ride under the maverick Mr Erbakan. He opposed any talk of compromise with Greece in the Aegean dispute, spoke of "liberating" Chechnya from Russian rule and wants to normalise relations with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein.

The parliamentary arithmetic is fiendish. The pro-Islamists have 158 members of the 550-seat assembly, followed by Mrs Ciller's True Path with 135, Mr Yilmaz with 133, the Democratic Left of Bulent Ecevit with 75 and the social democrat Deniz Baykal's Republican People's Party with 49.

Mr Yilmaz's shouted insults at Mrs Ciller could be heard outside their meeting room on Friday, the encounter that has finally dashed any hopes of them getting together. Newspapers such as the daily Sabah gleefully reprinted their exchanges.

"The ministry is my party's by right. This business is to do with party law," said Mrs Ciller.

"What party law?" said Mr Yilmaz. "Just drop this craziness, will you? And stop interrupting me, will you?"

"We've made two compromises. This is a big sacrifice. Can't you see that?" replied Mrs Ciller, referring to her allowing a Motherland Party candidate to become speaker of parliament.

"Shut up, will you? Can't you see I'm talking?" went on Mr Yilmaz. "This is an outrage. Do you think I'm a fool?"

Mr Yilmaz, 46, has for months had trouble controlling his temper when confronted with the taunting coolness of Mrs Ciller, 49. He accuses her of dictatorial tendencies and her husband of massive corruption, as do many in the Istanbul elite.

But that is hard to prove. What anybody can see day after day is that Mrs Ciller's accusations are correct. The dour and uncharismatic Mr Yilmaz is indeed always getting angry, and his party seems to be getting ready to break its main campaign promise, namely to keep Mr Erbakan's Islamists out.

"Mr Yilmaz is just looking for a pretext to say 'I've tried everything, now I have to join the Welfare'," said Mrs Ciller. Her high-minded anti- Welfare posture seems to be a bet that new elections will be forced in the summer either when the 45-day period runs out or when parliamentary instability brings down any possible Erbakan- Yilmaz coalition.

To judge from the comments of people on the street, it seems that Mrs Ciller is currently ahead in the race to win the secular centre-right vote in any future election. Mr Yilmaz seems doomed if he does join Mr Erbakan and doomed if he doesn't.

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