Embattled Ecevit Fighting for Survival

ANKARA (Reuters)–Ailing Turkish premier Bulent Ecevit met his ministers and coalition partners on Wednesday as signs mounted that he might yet bow to pressure for the early elections he argues would deal a blow to Turkey’s frail economy.

But Ecevit–steward of a land viewed by Washington as a key Muslim ally in its "war against terror," signaled that he would resist resigning ahead of polls.

Across Ankara–through the day–government and opposition figures met in secret conclaves to chart a way out of deadlock.

Ecevit–77–chaired a meeting of his cabinet–held for the first time since he fell ill in early May at his central Ankara offices. He later met the heads of his two partner parties who have both embraced the notion of early polls.

Meanwhile Ecevit’s former deputy–Husamettin Ozkan–the leading figure in a party mutiny–continued a round of meetings with possible allies amid growing speculation he may be building a new centrist block to mount a challenge when elections come.

None of the meetings produced any solid comment on the turmoil that markets fear may scotch a $16 billion IMF loan pact drawn up to help Turkey out of two financial crises that struck in 2000 and 2001.

Turkey is already the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) biggest debtor with loans topped up after crises in November 2000 and February 2001. Its debt burden is enormous and increasing as political caprice has forced up interest rates.

Ecevit has said nothing in public since his rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) partners moved early this week to recall parliament and set a November date for elections.

But in commen’s to a newspaper–he acknowledged for the first time that he could be forced to accept early polls that would spell the end of a career that has stretched over five decades.

"As I’ve said–I think early elections would be wrong but if these circumstances forced us–we would have to comply," he told Fikret Bila–a columnist close to the prime minister.

"Maybe the three (coalition) party leaders will make clear an election date. This might not be 2004 (when the mandate of parliament expires)–but a date brought forward," Ecevit said.

He said there was no cause for him to go before polls.

In Ecevit’s absence due to illness–media have been drawing up the political map of a post-Ecevit Turkey capable of pushing reforms and pressing controversial rights legislation that might make Turkey a more amenable partner for the European Union it strives to join. At stake is vital foreign investment.

"All Eyes On The Two Joker Cards," read the headline in Sabah daily on Wednesday. Beneath was a picture of non-party Economy Minister Kemal Dervis–the man who negotiated Turkey’s rescue package after a devastating financial crisis last year–talking with Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.

More than 30 members of Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP)–including five ministers–have resigned–upsetting the balance of power in Ecevit’s coalition and raising the prospect of early elections that even coalition partners seek.

Cem remains in the DSP but has yet to make any public statement on the power struggle around Ecevit. His departure might force the prime minister’s hand.

Radikal daily said plans were afoot for a union of center-left and center-right politicians including Dervis–Cem–Ozkan–long Ecevit’s closest aide and Mehmet Ali Bayar–a new arrival in politics popular in the commercial capital–Istanbul.

Ozkan was visited at his home by Cem on Wednesday after late night talks on Tuesday with Dervis. Dervis and Cem also met.

In another sign Ecevit might be weakening in his will to resist polls–a DSP deputy said Ecevit had told him at a meeting he would consider his request for a special party congress–a meeting that would clearly discuss leadership into elections.

"Ecevit will evaluate our call for an extraordinary congress and will inform us," deputy Uluc Gurkan told reporters.

Turkey’s volatile markets ended mixed on Wednesday–in limbo as investors await news on when the country will go to the polls and how the political landscape will develop until then.

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