Turkey: democracy battles chaos

Turkey's lawyers have a simple, if slightly unorthodox, request to make of the country's 14th government in as many years: they want to carry guns. (At least one lawyer already does, and beat an ambusher to the trigger in February.)

The unemployed, over 3 million of them, want jobs. The employed want wages to keep pace with prices that are, literally, skyrocketing. Engineers want projects to engineer. Importers want hard cash to finance imports.

And everyone wants electricity, heating oil, coffee, tea, margarine, light bulbs, or half a dozen other items that are becoming as rare as sunshine and stability in this winter of discontent.

The extreme (and extremely violent) left wants revolution. The far right wants its particular brand of law and order (and vows, meanwhile, to beat the stuffing out of anyone who calls it fascist). And the generals (no strangers to ruling modern Turkey) seem in no hurry, and no shape, to try again. They cross their fingers. They talk tough, and they pray that the world's eighth most populous (and probably first most fractious) democracy will somehow sort itself out before street violence and eroding troop morale virtually force direct intervention.

Suleyman Demirel, beginning his sixth stint as Turkey's Prime Minister, is gambling his future and the country's on the toughest line yet against mounting street violence and economic chaos.

He has vowed to crush political terror, to prove once and for all that this NATO state is not simply "ungovernable." He has set to work rebuilding a battered economy from the bottom up.

He may well win neither battle fully. But the real danger would lie in losing both outright -- or in so pushing his 45 million compatriots that the economic woes and gunplay somehow join hands.

That happened, briefly, in February at a state-controlled cotton mill in the Aegean Sea port city of Izmir. The management wanted to fire workers. The workers took over. Mr. Demirel ordered police and troops to crack down. After a few days of gunfire, and at least a few lost lives, the workers gave in.

"That's one point for Demirel," remarked a diplomat in the stark inland capital of Ankara, hundreds of miles to the northeast. But, the envoy acknowledged, the Prime Minister had also embarked irrevocably on a "race against time."

Most Turks, more for their country's sake than for Mr. Demirel's, seem to hope he will win that race.

But from street corner to street corner, shop to shop, drawing room to drawing room, and slum to slum, the country has also become as demoralized as it is divided.

Many professionals have simply left. More and more talk of doing so. a large majority of Turks still votes -- although the numbers were down in urban area in the latest election -- deftly defying pundits who say the country has given up on one of the only working democracies in the Middle East. Yet more and more people, from all classes and all walks of life, openly ask if their leaders care more about themselves and their parties than about the country.

Turkey is no stranger to violence, from outside and within. But the current crisis began only six or seven years ago, when soaring oil prices began battering this state which produces relatively little oil itself.

Since then, the country's two major political leaders -- the staunchly anti-communist Mr. Demirel and Bulent Ecevit, of the left-leaning Republican People's Party -- have been accused of spending more time battling each other than the country's problems.

An earlier Demirel regime began borrowing far beyond its means, building up a foreign debt that is nearing $15 billion. Various governments also funded the large and inefficient state sector of the economy by simply borrowing from the central bank.

Mr. Ecevit, a charismatic sometime poet who took his third stab at government in January 1978, managed to reschedule some of the foreign debts. He heftily devalued the Turkish lira in 1979, and responded to widened political violence by slapping martial law on nearly a third of Turkey's 67 provinces.

Mr. Demirel sniped from the opposition benches. Mr. Ecevit, relying on tentative half-measures, got virtually nowhere in curbing inflation, unemployment, or street violence.

In October 1979, an exasperated electorate turned him out in midterm elections. Mr. Demirel took over, threw caution to the winds, and literally stunned many Turkish and Western analysts with a make-or-break campaign to pull the country together:

* Anarchy, he said, would not be tolerated. Turkey, he added, is not ungovernable, indicating, at least, that this possibility had occurred to him, as it has to a growing number of Turks.

* He further devalued the lira, from roughly 47 per US dollar to 70. He removed price controls (pushing inflation, already above 100 percent annually, off the boards). And he moved to let a textbook free market sort out the country's grossly inefficient state industrial sector.

Mr. Ecevit, no doubt recalling Mr. Demirel's sniping, has responded with some salvoes of his own -- even comparing the government's crackdown at Izmir to the tactics of former Ugandan strong man Idi Amin. The powerful Turkish labor unions, meanwhile, lost little time in deducing that the Demirel strategy would mean, at least in the short run, further price hikes and possible layoffs at state-run concerns.

That "short run" could be fatal for the government, Turkish political analysts and diplomats in Ankara maintain. One key will be the West's response to Mr. demirel's bid for at least a billion dollars in immediate aid.

Meanwhile, the rat-a-tat-tat battle between left and right has claimed some four victims a day, many of them mere by- standers, in the past two years. Moreover, violence has increasingly been turning its sights on government targets. Labor strikes have hit a number of textile concerns and the national airline, where workers want their wages nearly tripled. some prices have risen at least that much since Mr. Demirel announced his economic program in January.

Local media already speak of a nationwide labor "campaign" against Mr. Demirel. He dismisses such a scheme as illegal, but does not explain how his minority government -- dependent on parliamentary support from two extreme-right parties -- could defuse such an offensive.

In the longer run, if Mr. Demirel's government survives that far, prices should stabilize. Industry should become more efficient. Industry, boosted by foreign aid dollars and a more realistically valued lira, should also benefit.

Meanwhile, Turkey's fundametally noninterventionist military command has issued a stern verbal call for the country's civilian politicians to stop bickering and start attacking Turkey's problems together.

A statement by the military late in December was taken by some of the news media to foreshadow yet another move to take direct control, as the military did as recently as 1971 in ousting an earlier Demirel Cabinet.

A closer readings suggests that is the last thing the generals would like. Martial law authorities were furious over a recent terrorist attack against two soldiers, and Turkish analysts reported some pressure from within the armed forces for the generals to strike back hard. Still, as one analysts in close touch with Gen. Kenan Evren, the chief of staff, explains, "The military knows it doesn't have any quick solutions for the country's problems, either."

An office worker in Istanbul, the seaside city of mosques that bridges Europe and Asia, agrees: "A military regime won't work," he sighs. "A while ago a band of leftists drew guns on my father to make him close his shop for a political protest," he recalls.

Did he close? "Sure. There wasn't any military around, and the troops couldn't have been able to do much anyway. the real problem is the economy and the politicians."

A prominent Turkish surgeon in Ankara, meanwhile, has left for the United States and says he isn't coming back. The catalyst: telephone threats from rightist militants.

An Ankara engineer, who is leaving for the US next month, says he has been determined to leave for three years, "ever since a band of thugs threatened me with knives in [the southern city of] Adana for carrying a newspaper they didn't like."

His wife, an Ecevit backer, had demurred. But: "Now I'm ready to go," she says. "I thought Mr. Ecevit would really pull things together, but I've given up on him."

Her husband has a further reason for leaving: "I'm an engineer. I go to work every day and I sit at my desk. I get paid, of course, but I want to work . . . . There's no cash for the projects I'm supposed to be working on."

In the Tahtakale section of Istanbul, where narrow streets wind back from the waterfront amid old stone buildings and mosques, Mr. Demirel's economic program has briefly idled black market changers who had made millions off the overvalued lira. They, of course, don't like Mr. Demirel.

But neither do many Istanbul laborers, who have seen the state controlled meat authority quadruple prices in recent weeks, gasoline prices rise to nearly

Metin, who makes about $75 a month, had rented two Istanbul rooms for about one-third that amount. "The day after the devaluation," he says, "my landlady told me she was raising the rent by 1,500 lira ($25). I have to move."

Mustafa can't. He lives in a gecekondu (Turkish for "a house built at night"), part of the slum areas that have grown up around the major cities due to a full-scale flight from the farms in recent years.

He doesn't have a job. His cousin does, and supports an extended family of 12 on about 6,000 lira a month.

There are, one Western diplomat hastens to point out, "good signs" in Turkey. For one, the country exists. so does democracy, against all odds. "And Turks work hard, and always have. . . . With some luck, they will pull through again."

In this regard, the ever-present danger is that violence and economic hardship will somehow manage to break the Turks' spirit.

In soiled work clothes, a burly Turk on the boat from Istanbul to Turkey's Asian heartland unfolds a copy of the newspaper Gunaydin. A corpse, face-up in full color, glares from the front page -- the latest victim of violence.

The man does not bat an eye. He flips the paper and digs into the sports page. Debarking, he counts a few lira from his pocket and buys his dinner -- a small loaf of bread.

A university professor has watched the scene beside me. What do you think will happen in Turkey, I ask.

He pauses a moment, then replies, formally: "I have a vision of Turkey's future. . . . I don't know exactly what will happen, no one does. But the vision is a sad one."

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