Turkey: why terror fails to snap NATO's weak link

The first full NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Turkey for 20 years has demonstrated Turkey's strategic importance to the Western alliance is greater than it ever was.

The meeting also underscored the fact that the country's fundamental commitment both to democracy and the alliance remains unshaken, even though Turkey's outward travail as it adjusts to modernization and democratization may seem threatening -- and open to exploitation by outside foes.

It helps foes of the alliance to have security in Turkish cities threatened by a mounting campaign by small terrorist groups of both the extreme left and the extreme right. Those foes are similarly helped by the political deadlock in the Turkish parliament over the election of a new president and over the holding of early elections.

And the same foes can rub their hands at Turkey's economic problems and the obsolescence of the military's main equipment.

Yet if the terrorist groups were hoping to scare the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers away from Ankara by their stepped-up wave of political murders in recent weeks, they have failed.

The NATO ministers chose Ankara as the site for their June 25 to 26 meeting knowing it would bring home the point of how important Turkey is to them strategically. The country sits astride the Soviet Union's only access route to the Mediterranean from the Soviet naval bases in the Black Sea. Turkey also has a long common land frontier not only with the Soviet Union but also with Iraq and Iran.

As far as the United States is concerned, despite the difficulties following the Congress-dictated arms embargo on Turkey (lifted only 21 months ago), the US has been able to maintain throughout this time the important monitoring stations in Turkey, now much more crucial with the loss of Iran.

Yet only the blinkered could not fail to wonder just what is going on in Turkey's internal politics and how the apparent turmoil might affect the country's role in NATO Right-of-center Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel and his Justice Party (JP) agreed only a few hours after welcoming US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie to Ankara to put his government to the test next week of a noconfidence vote in parliament.

Opposition leader (and former Prime Minister) Bulent Ecevit and his Republican People's Party (RPP) had been pressing for such a vote for a week. Mr. Ecevit's main charge against the Demirel government is that it has failed to put a brake on both the rate of inflation and on the growing number of terrorist murders, long parts of Turkey's troubled political life.

The turmoil, as in other lands, is the result of a traditional society having to adjust to speedy modernization and unprecedented economic growth -- a growth eventually stalled by the effects of the oil-price increases of 1973 to 1974.

Some outsiders ask whether the outcome might be the same kind of revolution that has convulsed neighboring Iran, given the Muslim culture indigenous to the peoples of both lands. But those who put the question perhaps do not give sufficient paus to the differences between the two countries.

The Kemal Ataturk revolution of nearly six decades ago set Turkey on a secular, modernizing, Westernized course from which it has never turned back. In 1950, it took the big step of introducing true parliamentary democracy. Ten years later, the Army intervened and briefly took over the government.

The Prime Minister ousted by the Army, Adnan Menderes, was deemed by the watchdog military (with some justification) to have abused democratic insitutions. With a toughness that sometimes marks the Turks, Mr. Menderes was tried and hanged. When the Army returned government to the civilians, it was under a Constitution into which were woven checks and balances intended to prevent any one man or party following Mr. Menderes's example and becoming too authoritarian or autocratic.

It is the intricacies of this Constitution that have contributed to the continuing impasse over the election of a new president, to the undue influence that third or splinter parties acquire in making or shaping cabinets, and to the difficulty of dissolving parliament ahead of time and calling new elections.

In the last general election in 1977, it is worth noting that 78 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls (compared with 54.4 percent for the voter turnout in the 1976 US presidential election). And in those Turkish elections, 42.1 percent and 37.2 percent of the total poll went to the two parties committed to parliamentary democracy, Mr. Ecevit's RPP and Mr. Demirel's JP, respectively.

The two numerically strongest parties whose full commitment to democracy is questionable got only 6.8 and 6.3 percent of the vote, respectively. The 6.8 percent of the votes went to Necmettin Erbakan's National Salvation Party, the one most closely identified with Muslim clericalism -- hardly enough to suggest a sweeping religious backlash against secularism, such as the one wracking Iran.

Why then the apparent political impasse and mounting extremist violence? Clearly, there are things to be put right in Turkey. But the problems of both Prime Minister Demirel and Mr. Ecevit in trying to put them right have been compounded by the fact that neither has presided over governments with strong parliamentary majorities and by the sometimes-hampering effect of constitutional procedures to safeguard democracy.

Both Mr. Demirel and Mr. Ecevit are men of stature -- the former perhaps the more hardheaded politician of the two, the latter the more idealistic romantic. The personal rivalry between them is intense.

The relative weakness of their respective governments long delayed the necessary belttightening once Turkey's impressively maintained growth rate -- up in a bracket with that of Taiwan and South Korea until the mid-1970s -- began to slacken off. Initially, no government dared cut politically sensitive subsidies to farmers and state-owned industries. Last year, the inflation rate rose to 85 percent.

But, chivied by the International Monetary Fund, Mr. Demirel put through overdue austerity measures last January. Now the IMF itself has approved a three-year $1.6 billion loan to Turkey and the country's Western creditor nations are rescheduling (to Turkey's advantage) repayment of debts.

As for military aid, West Germany reportedly is working on a multiyear $500 million package to supplement US military aid, now running at $250 million a year.

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