Turkish military promises 'speedy' return to democracy

There is an old custom in Turkey that when a person considers a conversation futile, he leaves his hat on the chair and walks away.

In the recent referendum, voters left their hats on the political parties' chairs, giving the military program the electorate's seal of approval.

Despite the ban against political parties and a virtual one-man campaign, the large voter turnout and the unexpected 92 percent endorsement of Gen. Kenan Evren marks the disintegration of the traditional grass-roots strength of the old political parties and trade unions and the sudden loss of charisma by their leaders.

The former general, elected to a seven-year presidential term, has discarded his uniform and shifted to civilian institutions. ''I will create the third Turkish republic,'' Evren announced. ''It will be a pluralistic system - but not at the risk of jeopardizing national unity and domestic order.''

Turkey's new republic - the third since 1923 - will be founded on the ashes of the most violent terrorist wave to have engulfed a Western nation, and on the worst economic and political crisis in the country's history. Before the military seized power two years ago, there was one murder every 90 minutes, inflation was running at 150 percent, industries were producing at only 50 percent capacity, and a polarized Parliament failed to elect a president after more than 100 ballots.

The memory of the past has given unprecedented powers to General Evren and his five-member National Security Council, which will continue to run the country. The rigidity of the new Constitution and the collapse of the parties leaves the Army unchecked, no longer subject to their mediating influence.

Government spokesman Ilham Oeztrak compared General Evren to Charles de Gaulle and promised that ''democracy will certainly be restored. A law regulating political parties will be approved four months from now, and in the fall of 1983 there will be general elections.''

Adm. Nejat Tumer, one of the members of the National Security Council, has hinted that current restrictions and the curbs on basic rights and freedoms authorized by the new Constitution could in time be lifted. But the state of emergency persists.

Officials admit 16,333 prisoners held on terrorist charges are still awaiting trial; and the London-based human rights group, Amnesty International, charges there is persistent use of torture, which has already claimed dozens of lives.

A new law stripped universities of their autonomy. A presidentially appointed National Council selects deans and professors, determines what courses are permitted, and chooses all the reading lists. The first bill on the agenda after the referendum calls for a one-year extension on prosecutability for press offenses.

The authorities' optimism about a speedy return to democracy is not shared by the political milieu.

''For the first time the Army intervened on a very strong political and ideological basis, leaving aside the myth of its neutrality,'' a journalist of the liberal daily Cumhuriyet said.

The Turkish Army has often intervened in the political sphere - 10 of the last 20 years were under some form of martial law - but takeover of power always followed a precise code of behavior: Once the Army had reestablished order and restored national unity, it would withdraw to the barracks, aware of its subordinate role to civilian power.

Political scientist Berner Karakartal describes the promoters of post-World War II coups as a ''core of hard-liners'' (not more than 40 of them) who always had to negotiate at length with the other ranks and top-level officers to win their support for a coup, and convince them to carry it out. But Karakartal has pointed out that the hard-liners were also always the least willing to give up government power.

With political life stifled, the ''core of hard-liners'' has grown and spread its influence, thanks also to the ''armed forces mutual assistance fund'' which closely links the Army with business and economic interests. The fund was created in the early '60s by the officers themselves. It now owns a majority share of 22 big companies in the country. It has investments in petrochemicals, processed foods, cement and rubber tire factories, and a 42 percent partnership with Renault in a car factory in Turkey.

A large majority of observers agree that in spearheading the 1980 coup, Evren warded off an even more right-wing takeover by followers of Alparslan Turkes, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party, many of whose members are in jail on terrorist charges. Evren's success at the polls, according to a Western diplomat , will strengthen his moderate approach.

But the Army moved into the political scene with the same economic program drafted by the right-wing government of then Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel before the coup. A combination of savage austerity and liberalism, the program casts aside a long tradition of protectionism and ''statism'' in a country where 50 percent of industry is state-managed. It promises to be one of the most radical innovations since the time of Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey.

The program imposed a fiscal and monetary squeeze on domestic consumption, a wage freeze, high currency devaluation (about 70 percent), full liberalization of market forces, and export promotion. The results are awesome: Inflation has dropped from 150 percent to 30 to 40 percent. The public deficit has been cut by two-thirds. The economy has risen from a pre-coup zero growth to 4.5 percent, the highest rate in Europe. Exports have doubled.

The price of this drastic economic shift has been painful. Unemployment has increased by 1 million and reached 20 percent. Real earnings have decreased to the levels of 1963, when collective bargaining was introduced. Interest rates have soared to 60 to 70 percent, causing serious difficulties for banks and small industries. And there is a shortage of consumer goods.

The voters' rejection of the past transcended the drastic economic cure, which one economist estimates has hurt as much as 90 percent of the population. But Evren's emotional mandate has still to face more difficult tests. A 4.5 percent economic growth is considered insufficient in a country whose population increases by 1 million a year while its labor force increases by half a million.

Turkey is also undergoing unprecedented structural changes aimed at transferring hundreds of thousands of peasants from the land to industry.

Evren has promised that he will not change the Constitution. But the old parties and trade unions have placed their hopes in the rigid structure failing to cope with the complexity of future problems.

One veteran politician sums it up: ''The regime must discredit itself before we get another chance to run the state.''

In this stifled debate, where everyone must remain anonymous, the last word belongs to the Turkish people, who will have to decide when it is time to go pick up their hats.

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