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The Turkish Republic, Recent Developments

Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Mesut Yilmaz, Refah, Necmettin Erbakan, Welfare Party

In 1993 Ozal died and Demirel replaced him as the country’s president. Economics Minister Tansu Ciller replaced Demirel as leader of the True Path Party (Turkish acronym, DYP) and became the country’s first female prime minister. Turkey’s economy suffered because of government deficits, a weak currency, and continued economic losses incurred by the UN trade embargo of Iraq. In April 1994 Ciller announced an economic austerity package, including price and tax increases and privatization of state assets, in an attempt to boost Turkey’s faltering economy.

In December 1995 parliamentary elections, the Welfare Party (Refah), an Islamic party led by Necmettin Erbakan, received the most votes in the elections but not enough to rule alone. Ciller’s DYP and Turkey’s other main secular parties refused to form a coalition government with the Welfare Party. In March 1996 Ciller and Mesut Yilmaz of the Motherland Party (ANAP) formed a coalition government in which Yilmaz would serve as prime minister until 1997, when Ciller would take over. The DYP withdrew from the coalition in June, after ANAP sanctioned an investigation of Ciller’s handling of government contracts. At the same time, parliament voted to hold a no-confidence vote to oust the coalition government, prompting Yilmaz to announce his voluntary resignation. The DYP was forced to form a coalition government with the Welfare Party, with Erbakan and Ciller alternating one-year terms as prime minister. Erbakan was declared prime minister at the end of June, making him the first Islamist leader of Turkey since the country was founded in 1923.

During the coalition’s first year, Ciller suffered from a series of financial scandals, while Erbakan’s attempts to adopt Islamic policies in Turkey were heavily criticized, especially by the Turkish military, traditional defenders of Ataturk’s secular state. Erbakan resigned in June 1997 under intense pressure from Turkey's top military leaders, and President Demirel designated Yilmaz prime minister.

Yilmaz formed a coalition government consisting of ANAP, a social democratic party called the Democratic Left Party (DSP), and a center-right party called the Democratic Turkey Party (DTP). In January 1998 the Turkish constitutional court outlawed the Welfare Party on the grounds that it threatened the secular nature of the Turkish state. Erbakan and several others were barred from politics for five years. Most other former members of the Welfare Party regrouped to form Virtue, another Islamic-oriented party, which retained Welfare’s position as the largest party in parliament.

In December 1997 the European Union (EU) denied Turkey’s application for full membership due to factors such as Turkey’s continued military presence in northern Cyprus, the conflict between the government and the Kurdish population, and the country’s questionable record on human rights issues. (Turkey had applied for full membership to the European Community, the EU’s predecessor, in 1987.) Meanwhile Turkey’s crackdown on Islam continued, as more than 200 mayors and other officials with ties to Virtue underwent investigation by the constitutional court. In December 1999 the EU formally accepted Turkey as a candidate for membership. However, the EU’s announcement in October 2002 of an ambitious expansion plan in which ten additional countries would be offered membership in 2004 did not include Turkey, and no timetable was established for Turkey’s possible admittance to the EU. An EU report noted that Turkey had yet to meet the criteria for membership.

In November 1998 a parliamentary vote of no confidence toppled the government of Yilmaz, who was implicated in a corruption scandal. Former prime minister and DSP leader Bulent Ecevit formed an interim government, which remained in power until national elections were held in April 1999. The DSP won the election, but strong showings by the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and Virtue made another coalition government inevitable. The following month Ecevit announced the formation of a coalition comprising the DSP, its former rival the MHP, and ANAP.

In August 1999 a powerful earthquake centered near the northwestern city of Izmit struck Turkey, killing at least 15,000 people, injuring more than 30,000, and leaving tens of thousands more missing and presumed dead. Government-led relief efforts were slow to get underway, prompting criticism of the government. Many Turks also criticized building contractors, whom they blamed for using shoddy construction materials and practices that contributed to the collapse of many buildings.

In May 2000 parliament elected Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the chief justice of the constitutional court, to the post of president. Observers described Sezer as a staunch advocate of democratic rights.

In November 2002 national elections, amid a difficult economic downturn, Turkish voters rejected Ecevit’s coalition government and gave overwhelming support to the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP, founded in 2001 from the moderate wing of a banned Islamist party, won 363 seats in the 550-seat parliament. The only other party to win seats in the parliament was the Republican People’s Party (CHP). AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is banned from holding public office due to a criminal conviction, pledged to support secularism, Turkey’s bid to join the EU, and an economic austerity program backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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