TURKEY: Corruption probe puts Ciller and coalition on the ropes

10 May 1996

DESERTED and increasingly isolated, former premier Tansu Ciller's reputation and political career are at stake in looming corruption probes. A parliamentary vote on 24 April for investigations into her role in suspect state electricity contracts also laid bare the acrimonious frailty of the centre-right minority coalition government. The Islamist opposition Welfare Party (Refah) is poised to reap the benefits.

'This government is digging its own grave,' said former premier Bulent Ecevit.

'The only way out is early general elections.' The coalition's survival depends on abstentions in key debates by his Democratic Left Party (DSP), but several prominent DSP members voted for the probe.

The vote sought by Refah successfully drove a wedge between Ciller's True Path Party (DYP) and its coalition partner, the Motherland Party (ANAP) led by, Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz. The breakdown of the coalition would open up the way to power again for Islamists, jilted by the March formation of the coalition, though returned as the largest parliamentary grouping in end-December elections.

While Yilmaz distanced himself, about 30 ANAP MPs joined in voting for the investigation, a move angrily denounced by Ciller as a conspiracy. If indicted in the Supreme Court after a four-month investigation, she would be barred from assuming the rotating premiership of the coalition on 1 January 1997.

Before the vote, the former premier went so far as threatening to form a coalition with Refah itself, should ANAP not defend her. But both the DYP and ANAP have flirted with the Islamists in the past to gain leverage against each other.

Ciller only relinquished first turn at the premiership to Yilmaz after the lateFebruary breakdown of coalition negotiations between ANAP and Refah.

On the other hand, many of the ANAP MPs voting for the probe reportedly come from the party's own Islamist wing, naturally the most inclined within the party towards switching to Refah.

After the vote, furious DYP ministers retracted an initial call for an end to the coalition, but demanded an open declaration of support from Yilmaz and ANAP. However, this seemed dubious in the face of a second vote called by Refah, scheduled for 9 May, on an investigation into Ciller's alleged tampering with the 1994 privatisation of state shares in car-maker Tofas. The case seems to be more clear-cut than the awards by state Turkish Electricty Distribution Company (TEDAS), according to senior Refah officials.

Loyalty to the premier within her own party has also been severely tested in the run up to the DYP's summer convention, where dissidents could topple her. Ciller's public image has been further tarnished by a domestic press scandal implying tax evasion in the secret purchase of an Aegean farm for her by a servant. This is the latest episode in a long history of press exposure of the considerable wealth owned by her and her businessman husband.

Refah's timing is acute, since the coalition has yet to prove it can do better than its predecessor led by Ciller in tackling Turkey's pressing economic ills, chiefly high inflation. Failed Western-style economic prescriptions since the late 1980s have alienated many voters, turning them towards Refah's slogan of an alternative, clean 'Just Order'.

Parliament, on 22 April, passed an ambitious 1996 budget and economic programme targeting 4.5 per cent growth and suppression of annualised, wholesale inflation to 64 per cent by the year-end.

However, divisions and delays over key bureaucratic appointments had already underlined the coalition's lack of teamwork.

Rather than coherent policy implementation, it seemed more likely the new government would muddle through by borrowing more abroad, mainly to offset huge domestic debt servicing, accounting for 37 per cent of all budgeted expenditure. Between 19-23 April, a team led by State Minister Ufuk Soylemez discussed a renewed seal of assurance and assistance from the IMF at the Fund's annual US spring meeting with the World Bank.

Observers said the IMF most likely would demand binding commitments to structural reform like privatisation and social security streamlining. Economic recovery and stabilisation from crisis in 1994 was broadly achieved by its previous stand-by programme which lapsed amid autumn political instability.

However, now the corruption controversy has further enfeebled the coalition, even if it can hold together.

Jim Bodgener

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