ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish premier Bulent Ecevit’s ruling coalition appeared to be disintegrating and his party mutinying on Monday after his rightist coalition partner moved to call early elections.
Ecevit’s former right-hand man–deputy premier Husamettin Ozkan–was the first to quit–leaving both the government and the Democratic Left Party (DSP) Ecevit founded in the 1980s.
"At no time have I tried to break up the DSP," Ozkan said as the drama unfolded. He gave no signal where his ambitions lie.
Ozkan–a rare accomplished negotiator in a fractious political culture–had been a key figure in holding the three-party coalition together through three years of turmoil over IMF-backed economic reform.
Anatolian news agency said about 15 DSP deputies had resigned from the party by Monday evening–including three ministers who had quit. Parliamentary sources said they expected many more to depart on Tuesday.
The resignations marked a dangerous rebellion for the DSP. Critics have often referred to it as the party of Bulent Ecevit and his wife Rahsan and speculated it could fall apart after their departure.
Ecevit–77–the last of an old generation of politician that has dominated Turkish politics for four decades–remained silent but was expected to make an announcement on Tuesday.
The writing was scrawled upon the shaking wall of Turkish politics at the weekend–when the Nationalist Action Party (MHP)–Ecevit’s rightist coalition partner–demanded parliament be recalled from summer recess to call elections for November.
Financial markets–which slumped on Monday–fear upheaval could derail a $16 billion IMF-backed crisis plan and hinder rights reforms vital to ambitions to join the European Union.
Turkey is the International Monetary Fund’s biggest debtor and a key US strategic ally on the edge of the Middle East.
There is no clarity as to what kind of government could emerge from the November elections demanded on Sunday by MHP chief Devlet Bahceli.
"It’s chaos–extreme uncertainty in the sense you don’t know what’s going to happen the next day or even in the next hour," said Emin Ozturk–economist at Bender Securities.
At present–opinion polls suggest the current coalition parties could all fail to clear the 10 percent threshold to parliament.
The big winner could be the Islamist AK Party–viewed warily by the powerful army for its Islamist roots.
It is also unclear whether or in what form the present coalition would hold together in the runup to elections.
Ozkan’s resignation was followed by that of Culture Minister Istemihan Talay–state Minister Recep Onal.
Since Ecevit first fell ill two months ago–bond yields have risen 20 percentage points to over 70 percent. Ankara is paying ever more interest on its debt and the path out of the worst recession since 1945 appears more daunting.
Turkish newspapers were surprised at the election call–which came less than a week after the coalition parties declared they would see out parliament’s five-year term until April 2004.
Hurriyet daily compared it to an earthquake and Cumhuriyet likened it to a bomb hitting crisis-racked Turkey.
Deputy premier Bahceli’s MHP held 127 seats before Monday in the 550-seat parliament–one fewer than Ecevit’s DSP. That balance will have turned dramatically to the MHP’s advantage.
Bahceli made it clear on Monday that he was not bluffing.
"Our chairman–Mr Devlet Bahceli–has instructed me to collect the necessary number of signatures from MHP deputies for the extraordinary convening of parliament on September 1," MHP deputy Koray Aydin told reporters.
The MHP must muster 110 signatures to recall parliament.
Four senior members of the biggest opposition party–True Path (DYP)–joined the call. The AK party said parliament should meet as early as August to approve elections for October.
A simple majority is required to set elections a minimum of three months after the vote. That would seem assured.
"I think everyone wants early elections," Emre Balkeser–sales trader at Alfa Securities in Istanbul–said. "The biggest problem is we don’t know what’s going to happen until (then)."
The lira–which lost half its value in a financial crisis last year–hit an all-time low of 1,680,000 to the dollar in early trading before pulling back.
Stocks ended almost five percent down.
Turkey’s benchmark 2030-maturity international bond fell 1.5 points to 81.125 percent of face value.
Newspapers cited widespread rumours Bahceli had seized the initiative because he suspected moves by Ozkan to ease the MHP out of government and replace it with the conservative DYP–which has 84 seats. Bahceli’s weekend call came as a humiliation to Ecevit–who just before had declared on live television he would not resign and predicted his coalition would hold despite all speculation.
He insisted he was recovering well from illnesses that have included spinal problems and a nervous-muscular condition.
Ecevit has not yet reacted publicly to the MHP move–but appeared on Monday evening to have been overtaken by events. The future of the last of Turkey’s political old guard–which has seen three military coups and years of rapid change–seems likely to be decided in the next couple of days.