Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Talking Turkey: By-Election Win Strengthens Ciller's Hand

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Talking Turkey: By-Election Win Strengthens Ciller's Hand

Article excerpt

Talking Turkey: By-Election Win Strengthens Ciller's Hand

By James M. Dorsey

Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's victory in June mini-elections is putting its stamp on Turkish politics. Most immediately, the victory in by-elections in 36 municipalities strengthens her ability to circumvent domestic opposition to a planned customs union between Turkey and the European Union, and also her ability to push through the democratic reforms needed to secure Europe's approval of the deal.

By winning the election, Ciller also has effectively defeated demands that she bring forward general elections scheduled for October 1996. Powerful figures in her own party, such as President Suleyman Demirel and Parliament Speaker Husamettin Cindoruk, as well as from the conservative opposition Motherland Party (ANAP) and the pro-Islamic Refah Party, had been calling for an early election in the hope of being able to unseat Ciller.

Ciller successfully portrayed the elections as a vote of confidence even though only a tiny slice of the electorate--88,448 voters, or less than three in a thousand--were polled. "The door has opened for us to govern alone after 1996," said Ciller, whose conservative True Path (DYP) leads an uneasy coalition with the left-wing Republican People's Party (CHP).

The DYP-CHP victory with a combined 55 percent of the vote came at the expense of the opposition, which emerged from the by-elections battered by results far below their expectations. The by-elections had put affairs of state in Turkey, including moves to fulfill European conditions for implementation of next year's customs union, on the back burner as politicians took to the campaign trail. Ciller's cabinet cancelled its meetings for three successive weeks while ministers hit the road in support of their local candidates.

Speaking in Brussels in mid-June after talks with Foreign Minister Erdal Inonu, European Parliament Vice-Chairman Renzo Imbeni said: "I would like to remind the Turkish government that the parliament does not issue idle threats. We will reject the customs union if our conditions are not met."

The European Parliament has warned that it will veto the accord if Turkey fails to improve its human rights record by the time the assembly discusses the issue in October. Imbeni stressed there would be no deal with the EU until Kurdish political prisoners were released and serious constitutional change had been embraced. He said Turkey's current steps toward democracy were faltering at best and would not persuade Euro-MPs to approve the deal.

As a result, Turkey has to race against the clock if it wants to fulfill European demands. Turkey has to conclude its debate and pass legislation lifting human rights restrictions by July 1, when the Turkish parliament is scheduled to begin a three-month recess.

Democratization Proposals

Ciller's democratization package, which she has promised for more than a year and which was being debated in parliament at the Washington Report's press time, would lift some restrictions on political activity and trade unions and remove a clause praising the 1980 military coup. Analysts and diplomats are cautiously optimistic about the proposals, but they stress the amendments offer only some of the changes needed for Turkey to democratize fully and shake off the legacy of the 1980-1983 military rule period.

For example, the amendments do not affect a host of legal restrictions on free speech, including Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law which bans "separatist propaganda. …

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