Secular Turks blame defeat on stolen votes

ONE OF the most bizarre sights in the tumultuous aftermath of Turkey's nationwide municipal elections has been troops of activists from defeated parties picking over smoking city rubbish dumps.

Given the rough-and-tumble of Turkish politics, it is unsurprising the rubbish sifters have dredged up quite a few valid-looking votes. Whole ballot boxes were found in polling station gardens and basements.

The discoveries fuelled protests against Sunday's success by the pro-Islamist Welfare Party. The most passionate were in the shocked capital, Ankara, where thousands demonstrated yesterday outside the Supreme Electoral Board, shouting slogans defending their secular vision of Turkey.

So far, only skimpy evidence backs up charges of massive electoral fraud by the Islamists. The electoral commissions rejected most complaints from big cities, ordering only four re-runs and a few recounts.

But rather than admitting their defeat, the leaders of the defeated parties were busy comparing their vote losses and accusing each other of fraud from the rubbish tips.

Few have responded to demands from top businessmen, columnists and ordinary people to unite and avoid being dumped on the junk-heap of Turkish history. More worrying is the hesitation by the government of the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, on the question of how to avoid a looming fiscal disaster. Overnight interest rates have been held at 1,000 per cent for days, and the Central Bank has little left in the till to defend the lira if it comes under new attack.

Mrs Ciller's problem is that although first results suggested she had passed her first electoral test surprisingly well, the final result says her conservative True Path Party won just 22.8 per cent of the vote. This is less than one percentage point ahead of her deadly rivals in the centre-right Motherland Party.

Mrs Ciller wants to continue until the 1996 parliamentary elections with her coalition partner, the Social Democrats. But they saw an even greater collapse of their vote to 13.35 per cent in 1994 from 28.71 per cent in 1989, and are debating what to do next.

Mrs Ciller has delayed announcing state price rises and a stability programme. Political sources say the Social Democrats will only give their approval to austerity if Mrs Ciller withdraws allegedly anti-democratic elements in a new anti-terrorism law, aimed to crush the Kurdish rebellion.

The Social Democrats may be hiding deeper reservations. Osman Ulugay, chief economic commentator at the newspaper Milliyet, pointed out that whatever happens, an economic crash is coming, and that the political price will be paid by Mrs Ciller and whoever is in power with her.

Turkey's GNP growth was announced yesterday to have been a sizzling 7.3 per cent in 1993, probably still the highest in the OECD group of industrialised states.

But since January, soaring interest rates and a collapse in consumer demand have forced Turkish factories to lay off workers and close. The balance of trade was running at its record 1993 deficit levels in the first two months of 1994, but Kurdish rebels are again threatening to damage Turkish tourism receipts.

Mr Ulugay said social unrest, and inflation rapidly heading up from 70 per cent to three figures, would inevitably push people towards the dangerously vague, populist solutions of the pro-Islamist Welfare Party.

When the time comes, the Islamists will have the perfect drum to beat the accompaniment to their anti-Western, anti-free market rhetoric about world Zionist plots: Mrs Ciller is planning her economic programme with an architect of Israel's 1980s stabilisation program, a former governor of the Israeli Central Bank.