Turkish leader agrees to early elections

Ruling coalition loses majority in parliament


Turkey's ailing prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, accepted yesterday what seemed inevitable and agreed to early elections, in November, after more defections from his wobbly coalition brought it below a majority in parliament.

The three-party coalition has been crippled by bickering over reforms that are a condition for talks on joining the European Union.

Ecevit's hand was forced by an exodus from his Democratic Left Party this month of almost half of its members in parliament, making it the smallest party in the coalition instead of the biggest.

Ecevit, who is 77 and has been sidelined for weeks with illnesses that include a spinal disorder and Parkinson's disease, plans to soldier on until the elections, which will be 18 months earlier than required.

Although six more members resigned from the party yesterday, Ecevit persuaded a bloc of nine to stay, apparently removing the threat of a vote of no-confidence as the political focus shifts to the election campaign.

Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz said Devlet Bahceli's Nationalist Action Party, now the biggest party in the coalition, had promised not to block reforms needed for European Union membership in return for setting an election date.

"We will start working toward recalling the parliament as soon as possible, at the latest by the end of this month, to make the necessary legal amendments for EU membership," Yilmaz said.

All three parties are fighting for their survival. None can be sure of clearing the threshold of 10 percent of votes they would need to be returned to parliament, the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

The political equation is complicated further by opinion polls indicating that the new Justice and Development Party, forged a year ago from the ashes of a banned Islamic party, is by far the most popular with voters.

Many of the defectors are expected to join a new centrist party being formed by Ecevit's most prominent former allies. They jumped ship fearing that the country's political gridlock could jeopardize the ambition of Turkey, NATO's only mostly Muslim nation, to join the European Union as well as a $16 billion International Monetary Fund loan.

The stakes are high for this country of 65 million Turks, which is suffering from high unemployment and its worst recession since 1945.

They are also high for the United States, which needs a compliant and stable ally as a base in the event that it decides to proceed with military action against neighboring Iraq.

Bahceli plans to make Turkey's EU candidacy an election issue. He opposes membership because of requirements to abolish the death penalty and to ease curbs on the country's Kurdish minority using their own language.

His party, which is seeking voters in more nationalistic rural areas, insists that such concessions to the Kurds would encourage them to renew a separatist revolt.

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