Deputies in Ecevit’s Party Hint He Should Go

ANKARA (Reuters)–Ailing Turkish premier Bulent Ecevit–struggling to stamp authority on a divided coalition–faced a "velvet rebellion" in his own party on Tuesday when nine of his parliamentary deputies hinted it was time for him to go.

Markets have been nervous in recent weeks on speculation that Ecevit’s three-party government could collapse if he is forced by health to withdraw and that a $16 billion crisis recovery program could be derailed.

Ecevit–77 and afflicted by ailmen’s ranging from a nervous disorder to spinal problems–has insisted he will remain in office and there will be no election before parliament’s mandate ends in 2004. Much party business is currently conducted by his wife and deputy party leader Rahsan Ecevit.

But nine deputies from his Democratic Left Party (DSP) went as close as Turkey’s political culture will permit to urging Ecevit to step down from the party leadership–a move that could also involve him relinquishing the prime minister’s post.

"The DSP should be able to go on without Ecevit but under the stewardship of the Ecevits," a statement by the deputies said.

Ecevit–who was in hospital twice in May–is due to have a full medical examination on Wednesday to decide if he can return to work. He has missed several important meetings of state bodies in recent weeks.

Markets fell initially after the statement by the nine deputies–but recovered later. Some dealers were fearful of further turmoil but others were encouraged that the soft tone of the statement suggested the deputies were determined to avoid conflict and secure a smooth transition to a new leader.

"The tone of the statement is not that of a rebellion against Ecevit. They say the transition (in the party) should be under their (the Ecevits’) stewardship," one banker said.

"There is nothing to fear since their attitude is moderate."

The statement’s wording suggested Ecevit–who founded the party in the 1980s after three-years of military rule–should go as operational leader but retain at least a figurehead role.

No senior party officials were among the nine deputies–but the significance of their move is nonetheless great.

Party Officials Hit Back

Senior party members were quick to stamp on the suggestion that Ecevit’s time as leader might be drawing to a close.

"In the DSP there is no leadership problem and in Turkey there is no problem about the prime minister’s job," said a statement signed by deputy party group chairman Emrehan Halici and three other top DSP officials.

"It is very dangerous for certain colleagues in the DSP to be making such statemen’s," it said–adding that Ecevit’s health was improving.

Public loyalty to the leader is a major prerequisite in the Turkish political system and any adverse comment–whatever its tone or motives–is seen as tantamount to a rebellion by many.

Possible successors for the party leadership include Foreign Minister Ismail Cem–Deputy Prime Minister Husamettin Ozkan and Rahsan Ecevit. Ecevit himself has denied suggestions that by failing to groom a successor he has ensured a struggle for succession that could divide the party.

In his absence–frictions have grown within the alliance with the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP)–which opposes rights reforms designed to move Turkey towards European Union membership talks. Progress to membership is vital in itself to attract essential foreign investment.

The DSP has 128 deputies in parliament. The MHP has 127 and the third party–Motherland–has 79. An independent parliament member joined the MHP on Tuesday–raising their total by one.

Ecevit’s spokesman’said on Tuesday the premier would go to hospital on Wednesday afternoon for a medical that had initially been scheduled for Thursday. He gave no reason for the change.

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