Ecevit Abandons Bid to Form Government

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey’s political crisis deepened on Monday when Prime Minister-designate Bulent Ecevit abandoned his efforts to persuade squabbling secularist leaders to form a new government.

Ecevit–a veteran leftist–has sounded warnings that the power vacuum is helping the main opposition Islamists ahead of general elections set for April–1999.

Turkey has not had a stable administration since a left-right coalition collapsed in 1995. A series of weak coalitions since then has presided over Turkey’s estrangement from Europe and a bitter conflict with Kurds.

Ecevit hosted three weeks of government talks with party leaders that only highlighted the factional fights and personal rivalries that plague Turkey’s parliament.

"I told the president I have been unable to fulfill my duty and asked him to relieve me of it," he told reporters.

Istanbul shares were up more than two percent in mid-afternoon trade in a recovery from losses last week on the political uncertainty and the US-British air strikes on Iraq.

Any new government would only be a stop-gap measure to take the country to the April elections. Political leaders have until mid-January to break the government logjam.

After that–the president is empowered to dissolve parliament and appoint his own prime minister in a temporary coalition government that would give the Islam-based Virtue Party (FP) the largest slice of power.

Virtue leader Recai Kutan called on Demirel to appoint a non-partisan deputy to take over the search for a government.

"We have reached the point where we need a broad-based government headed by an member of parliament agreed to by the leaders," he said after talks with the president.

Demirel is expected to name a new prime minister-designate in the coming days. Parliament speaker Hikmet Cetin and Defense Minister Ismet Sezgin are among the candidates.

The crisis has hindered Turkey’s efforts to secure the extradition of Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan from Italy–where he was arrested in November but later freed.

Ocalan is willing to leave Italy if plans to try him in an international court do not come to fruition–Ocalan’s lawyer Giuliano Pisapia told Italian radio on Monday.

Turkey’s previous government of conservative Mesut Yilmaz was toppled by parliament last month in a row over corruption.

Yilmaz–who stays on as caretaker prime minister–said the powerful army would not let the Islamists enter office. He said an anti-Islamist crackdown that began with an army warning on February 28 last year was still casting a shadow over politics.

"February 28 has not gone away completely. Nobody should even think about becoming a government partner of the FP in this atmosphere," the Yeni Yuzyil daily quoted Yilmaz as saying.

The fiercely secularist generals forced an Islamist-led coalition from office in 1997 and inspired a campaign to prosecute leading religious activists.

Tension between secularists and Islamists has increased in recent weeks. Religious feeling is running high due to the Moslem holy month of Ramadan–which started at the weekend.

The Islamists were excluded from Ecevit’s government bargaining despite becoming the biggest grouping in parliament.

They opposed the US and British strikes on neighbor Iraq but the attacks had little effect on NATO member Turkey’s domestic politics.


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