Turmoil At The Top

This was meant to be the year Turkey turned around, when sensible economic policies and an ambitious program of reform would heal a deep economic crisis and put the country on track for membership in the European Union. Instead, what the Turkish press has dubbed a "political earthquake" in Ankara is threatening to plunge the country back into recession and put plans for Turkey's EU membership in the deep freeze.

The man at the center of the storm is 77-year-old Bulent Ecevit, Turkey's prime minister and one of the country's most trusted veteran politicians. Until recently he was doing a good job of holding together an unlikely coalition of socialists, centrists and nationalists while pushing forward with reforms demanded by the EU and the International Monetary Fund. But in May Ecevit fell ill and disappeared from public view (and cabinet meetings). Opponents and supporters alike called for him to step down in favor of a younger man, most likely the pro-EU Foreign Minister Ismail Cem. The prime minister, legendarily stubborn, refused. That prompted a revolt from within his Democratic Left Party (DSP). Over the course of a week, Ecevit's trusted deputy, Husamettin Ozkan, resigned his post, along with 46 DSP parliamentarians and seven ministers, including Cem. Economy Minister Kemal Dervis, a former World Banker who has come close to curing Turkey's sick economy, tried to step down, too, only to withdraw his resignation hours later after Turkey's president, Ahmed Sezer, begged the highly regarded minister not to leave.

The result is an ominous political stalemate. Ecevit insists he'll limp on with a rump cabinet, including his new Euroskeptic, hawkish foreign minister, Sukru Sura Gurel. Meanwhile his best ministers and the rebels from within his own party are working to set up a new centrist political movement to contest elections, which will probably be called in November. Though Dervis is still at his post, the political uncertainty is sure to depress the markets and the already hyperinflated Turkish lira (which hit a historical low of 1.7 million to the dollar before Dervis withdrew his resignation). Worst of all, the turmoil in Ankara will likely bring to a halt the political and economic reforms designed to qualify Turkey for the first rung on the ladder to EU accession--changes like granting more minority rights, abolishing the death penalty and allowing more freedom of expression. "It was going to be a high bar to jump even in ideal circumstances," says a senior EU source. "This was a window of opportunity [for Turkey]. Now they're not going to get this close again for years."

The timing of this political crisis couldn't have been worse. Thanks to Dervis and a $16 billion bailout from the IMF, things were finally starting to go right for Turkey. The economy looked set to grow 4 percent this year (after falling 10 percent in 2001), the lira was finally stable after losing half its value in the past 18 months and inflation was approaching the IMF's target of 35 percent. The governing coalition had suddenly gotten serious about complying with strict IMF economic criteria and about passing EU-inspired legislation designed to make Turkey freer and more democratic. Now those achievements could easily be reversed as investor confidence evaporates and Turkey's leaders maneuver for power ahead of elections.

But the deeper problem is that the current crisis isn't just a tactical spat between ambitious politicians; it's also a battle for the very identity of Turkey. Many Turkish politicians--notably those in the Nationalist Action Party, a member of the government coalition (and now the largest single party in Parliament)--have become increasingly unhappy with the kind of reforms pro-EU activists like Cem were trying to push through. They fear that granting Turkey's 12 million-strong Kurdish minority the right to broadcast and teach in their own language will encourage ethnic separatism. The political meltdown may also open the door to the pro-Islamic AK Party; its candidates have topped recent pre-election polls. Though the AK Party is moderate by Mideastern standards, it's the political heir to much more radical Islamist parties--and post-September 11 sensitivities mean that even the hint of Islamists in government is enough to send tremors running through the ultrasecularist Army and international investors.

That leaves Turkey at a crossroads. The best-case scenario is that Cem, Dervis and Ozkan's new movement takes the political initiative and forms a caretaker government to push through reforms before elections in the fall. There's still a good chance that important democratic reforms over language rights and the death penalty can be passed--if Ecevit steps down. If he doesn't, Turkey's political and economic life will continue to be paralyzed by the prospect of the government's imminent fall. That would risk making this the year Turkey turned back the clock.