Ecevit Leads Turkish Polls

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish nationalists stormed to dramatic electoral successes on Monday–dashing Islamist hopes of power and challenging Premier Bulent Ecevit to embrace them in government.

Istanbul’s stock market was down more than three percent on concern the political wrangling of the last four years could continue. But a nationalist pledge of commitment to International Monetary Fund reforms lifted shares–which recovered to end almost unchanged.

"There’s a reactionary nationalism in Turkey," political science professor Cetin Yetkin told Reuters.

"Domestically–the Kurdish question has made people remember they are Turks. Externally there is the isolation from the Western world."

Computer projections suggest the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)–which failed at 1995 polls to clear the 10 percent hurdle–would garner about 130 seats–close behind Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP).

The Islamist Virtue Party–biggest grouping in the last parliament–suffered a bitter defeat. Protest votes registered in their name against mainstream parties in 1995 were clearly lost on Sunday to the radical MHP.

"Virtue’s decline will pull Turkey away from the appearance of a country where radical Islam is on the rise," said Ertugrul Ozkok–editor of Hurriyet newspaper.

It will also ease fears in the powerful army–which saw Virtue as a threat to Turkey’s secularist constitution.

Celebrations went on well into the morning at MHP headquarters–young supporters waving the party’s red three-crescent flag and making their distinctive "Wolf’s Head" gesture. The thumb meets the tips of the two middle fingers to form the snout–while the outer fingers rise to show the ears.

MHP leader Devlet Bahceli–a 51-year-old economist–was asked by Sabah newspaper if he would entertain a coalition with the DSP and Mesut Yilmaz’s conservative Motherland Party.

"Why not? If they accept our terms. We will not insist on our own program being implemented. We will strive to find a middle road but we will not make too many concessions," he said.

Both the DSP and the MHP appeared to have gained from the "Ocalan Factor."

Ecevit–who has always combined leftist credentials with a strong nationalistic streak–saw his popularity rise with the capture of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah "Apo" Ocalan shortly after he took office in January. Ocalan faces trial over the deaths of 29,000 people in a 14-year-old campaign.

The MHP benefited from the same nationalist sentiment–whose immediate origins might be traced back to a European Union decision over a year ago to omit Turkey from a list of countries invited to seek EU membership.

Since then–Turkey’s foreign policy has grown more robust. Threats of military action led Syria to expel Ocalan on the first stage of his sojourn into captivity and caused Cyprus to drop plans to deploy Russian anti-aircraft missiles. Relations with Brussels are–at best–frosty.

DSP and MHP have a history of conflict in the 1970s when supporters of left and right fought bloody street battles that led eventually to a 1980 military coup. But Ecevit himself said on Sunday night times had changed since those days.

Ecevit met President Suleyman Demirel and agreed to stay on as caretaker prime minister until the head of state decides on a first candidate to try to form a government.

If Ecevit gets that task he may decide that it would be impossible to rule without the resurgent MHP.

Markets could find some solace in such an arrangement. The MHP’s economic policy is not clear in any detail–but the party might be persuaded to take a back seat on finance in return for a say in matters of foreign policy and domestic security.

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