ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Faced with rising pressure from Turkey's secular military, Necmettin Erbakan yesterday resigned as prime minister in a meeting with Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, ending a one-year experiment in Islamist-led government.
Mr. Erbakan's move, which included a call for new elections as early as October, could actually strengthen his beleaguered party. The popularity of his Refah (Welfare) Party has risen lately as stock in his coalition partner and likely successor - Tansu Ciller of the center-right True Path Party - has fallen.
What is likely to happen now is a game of musical chairs in which Mrs. Ciller takes her turn as prime minister. When the coalition was formed last June, the plan was for such a rotation to happen in two years.
But Erbakan's early departure leaves Refah ministers in the Cabinet. That has political analysts wondering about the Army's next move.
Some Turks, particularly in the press, see a longer Refah rule as a danger to a democratic, secular state. But others say forcing the party out of government will only make Refah's radicals more militant, and gain the party more support from ordinary people.
The secular "generals," as they are known, have left no doubt that they want the Islamists out. They do not want to see Refah with any power, even in a government led by Ciller, whom they call an "accomplice" of Islamists, not a guarantor of secularism.
International observers understand that Ciller's premiership is not guaranteed. They worry that the Army will pressure President Demirel to torpedo the reconfigured coalition altogether.
That worries American officials concerned about stability in this NATO country. This week, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Washington expects Turkey to preserve democracy.
Sources close to the military say that no coup is planned. "We are fully aware of the possible consequences of a coup," says a senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We also know the concern abroad." There have been three coups since 1960.
The feeling in the armed forces, however, is that letting Islamic power grow would eventually lead to sharia, or Islamic law, and an end to democracy. That reasoning has led them to call for Refah to be shut down. Last week, an Army "briefing" called an Islamic uprising imminent - and threatened force as a last result.
An early election would shield the party from some of the heat being thrown by the Army. It would also allow Refah to consolidate, and perhaps fare better at the polls than it did in December 1995, when its 21 percent was only enough to land the party in the coalition that was finally formed last year.
Opinion surveys already show Refah's support broadening. Erbakan views a fresh election as "a referendum" on his party.
Ciller has reason to seek the office of prime minister and to favor an election. Holding the post would keep her immune from prosecution on pending corruption charges and gain her influence in government at a time when her hand has been weakened.
Political observers in Turkey see big gains for Erbakan if Ciller does become prime minister. Intense political maneuvering over the next few days will determine whether she gets in. Demirel has hinted that he wants be sure that the person he designates will be able to have a working majority. Recent defections by some of Ciller's ministers mean the coalition partners do not hold the necessary majority.
Yet the small, ultranationalist, pro-religious Great Unity Party announced Tuesday that it would throw support behind a Ciller-led coalition. That should give her the sway Demirel requires.
The question now is whether Ciller's own True Path parliamentarians will go so far as to vote against her. If they do, they could effectively keep both Ciller and Refah out of power.