Ecevit Forms New Government

ANKARA (Reuters)–Veteran leftist Bulent Ecevit became Turkey’s new prime minister Monday to steer the country to April elections which are shaping up as a fight between Islamists and the secularist elite.

Turkey had been without an established government since a conservative-led coalition collapsed last November over corruption allegations. In the power vacuum–friction between religious activists and the secularist army has risen.

President Suleyman Demirel gave the nod to Ecevit’s minority government–expected to win a parliamentary vote of confidence set for Sunday.

"The president approved my cabinet list," Ecevit told reporters at the Cankaya presidential palace. Ecevit–the number two in the previous government–is a staunch secularist seen by the generals as a safe pair of hands in times of trouble.

He said his government’s lifespan and room for action were defined by elections scheduled for April 18–20 months before normally due.

"For this reason the program we will submit to parliament will be a restricted one," he told a news conference carried by the NTV television channel. He also pledged to implement the last government’s anti-Islamist reforms "with determination."

Ecevit is best known abroad as the man who ordered Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus.

The new cabinet is composed of members of his Democratic Left Party plus three independents. It is backed in the national assembly by two rival conservative factions.

Ecevit–73–urged voters on Sunday not to support the Islam-based Virtue Party in the election on April 18.

"I trust our citizens will realize that the best way to prevent fundamentalism is to use their votes conscientiously," he told state television.

He warned the Islamists not to bring up a dispute over a ban on Islamic-style headscarves in the run-up to polling.

"Nobody should use the headscarf issue as election material. The elections should not be overshadowed by the headscarf or fundamentalism. Otherwise–troublesome situations could arise."

The Islamists are tipped to do well despite having been forced by the army to relinquish power 18 months ago after winning an election in 1995.

The Virtue Party has dropped much of the religious rhetoric that marked the previous Islamist push for power.

The Islamists have quietly shelved plans for an "Islamic currency" and Moslem defense alliance–and now say they back Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.

But the change of tone has not impressed the army–which has staged three coups since 1960. The generals warned at the weekend that Virtue could be outlawed for allegedly threatening democracy and Turkey’s secular constitution.

"Our democracy will be strengthened if political formations that will destroy democracy by abolishing secularism are banned," a pamphlet issued by the armed forces said.

The Islamist Welfare Party–Virtue’s predecessor–was disbanded by the constitutional court last year for sedition after a legal process that lasted more than six months.

Its aging leader Necmettin Erbakan–Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister–was banned from political leadership until 2003.

Turkish shares closed 1.87 percent lower on Monday as the formation of a government–already discounted with strong gains early last week–failed to inspire the market–brokers said.


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