Turkey's 'Old Wolves' win a share of power

HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Tansu Ciller has done it again, snatching victory from the jaws of political defeat and forming a minority government likely to see Turkey through to early parliamentary elections next year.

But Turkey's first woman prime minister was the first to admit that she had paid a high price to keep her post, a price that Western diplomats fear may damage the country's long-term prospects of rapprochement with Europe and hopes for economic stability under the latest IMF-imposed austerity plan.

"When I tell people about the events of the last days, they'll go into shock,'' Mrs Ciller told the Sabah newspaper. ''I have come through an unbelievable game, I'm sorry to say."

Small scraps of political favour, it seems, were no longer enough to keep the old wolves of Turkish politics at bay. To muster the necessary parliamentary support, Mrs Ciller was forced to invite them to feast on what is left of Turkey's dysfunctional body politic. Bargaining reportedly involved not only policy commitments and ministries but also bureaucratic appointments and thousands of civil service jobs.

The 30-strong True Path Party cabinet will not take power before a vote of confidence next week, which it should get if Mrs Ciller resolves a strike by 350,000 public sector workers that has paralysed ports, railways and the sugar beet industry since 20 September.

But the political turnaround is already striking. The 1991 parliament that produced a centre-right coalition with Social Democrats promising to "turn prison walls into glass" has delivered one of the oldest, most right-wing and narrowly nationalist administrations.

The crisis started two weeks ago when Mrs Ciller, 49, was forced to resign after the newly-elected Social Democrat leader, Deniz Baykal, walked out of her government. A natural successor coalition with the Motherland Party leader, Mesut Yilmaz, her equally youthful rival for the future leadership of Turkey's centre-right, collapsed in a storm of personal insults.

Since then the patriarchs have emerged to wield behind-the-scenes power: President Suleyman Demirel, 72; the left-wing former prime minister Bulent Ecevit, 69; the Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan, 69; and the right-wing leader Alparslan Turkes, 78, whose political career began with agitation in 1944 to bring neutral Turkey into the Second World War on Germany's side.

Their re-emergence is extraordinary. These men's blinkered personal feuding in the Seventies led the country into terrorism, economic collapse and the 1980 military coup. All four share a fearful view that the world is plotting to cheat Turkey and split it between Turks and Kurds. They voice suspicion of an important customs union agreement with the European Union scheduled to take effect on 1 January

The European Parliament is due to vote on 14 December to ratify the free trade deal, but has demanded reforms, including the lifting of Article 8 of the anti-terrorism law, chiefly used to imprison dissident writers on the Kurdish problem, and the release of six former Kurdish members of parliament.

Mrs Ciller has vowed that her priority is to rush through the reforms, as strong as her determination to ensure that Monday's decision in Azerbaijan on oil pipeline routes out of new Caspian Sea fields is equally favourable to options wanted by Russia and Turkey.

The initial signs are that US support will help her out on Caucasian and even central Asian pipelines, but it will be another matter to enact domestic human rights reforms in the face of an old guard whose mindsets were cast in the Forties. Mr Turkes, sometimes known as ''the Chief Wolf'', now holds the balance of power as he lurks on the edge of the government campfire. He sometimes speaks in favour of Customs Union, but is vague when asked if he has dropped his objections to lifting Article 8. On the problem of Turkey's 12 million Kurds, about one in five of the population, Mr Turkes refuses to consider anything but a military strategy that has only escalated a Kurdish insurgency that broke out in 1984 and has killed more than 17,000 people.

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