ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit came out fighting on Friday as he faced a major challenge from a newly-declared center-left bloc that staked its claim to power saying the premier was no longer able to govern.
"We must continue with this government until the end," Ecevit said in a live television interview–brushing off all talk of early elections and insisting that his apparently divided coalition could reach agreement on the European Union.
Ismail Cem–who quit Ecevit’s party and resigned as foreign minister this week–said he had formed a new movement with Economy Minister Kemal Dervis–steward of a multi-billion dollar IMF-backed crisis plan–and former deputy premier Husamettin Ozkan.
Dervis–however–remains in government.
Cem’s announcement had been long awaited by markets and by Turkey’s Western allies–who see Dervis as the closest thing to a guarantee the plan will be implemented to pull Turkey out of its worst recession since 1945. Fears abound that uncertainty over Ecevit–77–and possible early polls could scotch the plan.
Stocks jumped more than five percent and Turkey’s international bonds also surged on news of the new formation.
"The government has distanced itself from the ability to govern because of infighting. Turkey has reached the point where it cannot take the steps it needs to," Cem said–explaining his decision to resign from the government.
He said the movement would press through rights reforms stalled in the present government and vital for Turkey to qualify for EU membership talks.
Ecevit–however–said that elections in November would spell the end of the government’s plans to pass the EU reforms.
Ecevit’s partners in the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) have made clear they oppose easing restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language and abolishing the death penalty–among the reforms the EU seeks–and have called for elections in November.
"If we coalition partners can find formulas related to the EU (reforms) that we can easily agree upon–maybe (MHP leader Devlet) Bahceli will accept that we don’t need early polls," said Ecevit–whose ill-health since early May has allowed divisions in the coalition to deepen.
Ecevit also announced he was appointing deputy premier Sukru Sina Gurel – a man with a reputation as a hawk on the EU and Cyprus – to replace Cem as foreign minister.
The EU is unlikely to view Turkey’s EU ambitions favorably if there is no agreementthe divided east Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Gurel said there would be no change in Turkey’s foreign policy. "Of course we will continue with our foreign policy–keeping with the known principles of this government’s programme and the coalition agreement," he told Reuters.
But Gurel’s appointment caused concern among Greek Cypriots. "In his attempt to cling on to power Bulent Ecevit is essentially embracing ever more tightly the most extreme and nationalist elemen’s of the Turkish establishment," said Cypriot government spokesman Michalis Papapetrou.
Cem acknowledged the difficulty of Dervis–a technocrat brought from Washington by Ecevit last year to tackle the fallout of two financial crises–working in the government while supporting a bloc that sought to outflank it.
"We continue together with Dervis and will continue together–but we appreciate the realities of his present position," Cem said.
Ecevit insisted there was no problem and Dervis would continue in his current position. "Dervis agreed to leave the group Cem is forming. Cem’s remarks that Dervis was in this formation are his own desire," Ecevit said.
Ecevit’s commen’s were at odds with what Dervis himself told a newspaper on Friday – that he was ready to form a new political party with Cem and Ozkan.
Sources close to Dervis said he would not immediately become a member of a new party but he supported the movement.
MHP leader Devlet Bahceli–who has repeatedly clashed with Dervis over IMF-backed reforms–said Dervis had outlived his usefulness. "Minister Kemal Dervis’s marginal use has now been wiped out," state-run Anatolian agency quoted Bahceli as saying.
Dervis appeared to reach a blunt understanding with Ecevit on Thursday. He resigned after the premier objected to his involvement in what has become known as the troika.
Hours later Dervis withdrew his resignation at the behest of President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. The president’s intervention underlined the powerful position occupied by Dervis–who clearly set his own terms for staying on.
The lira had slumped on reports of Dervis’s departure–forcing the Central Bank to intervene to support it.
Dervis also spoke about the troika–which held a well publicized meeting on Wednesday night.
"The programme is ready in our minds," he told Sabah newspaper. "We shall succeed. We have a vision. The programme for the first 100 days and even the first 500 days is ready for when we come to power.
"We have a vision that will carry Turkey into the super league," the paper quoted him as saying.
Dervis–long a World Bank executive in Washington–seeks economic recovery through a rapid integration with the European Union that would ease suspicions among wary foreign investors.
Dervis was long seen as the "fourth party" in the coalition. But Ecevit is clearly unhappy at him bringing a fourth party in the true sense of the word into government – especially one drawing on his former Democratic Left Party (DSP) members.
With 44 deputies defected from the party–the DSP now retains just 84 spots in the 550-seat national assembly.
More resignations could end the coalition’s majority.
"It’s expected more people will leave the party. I don’t think it will be a small number who will break from the party," said Ilter Turan–professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul.