Ozal to stay on despite weak showing in Turkish referendum

Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal is set to remain in office despite his party's setback in a nation-wide referendum. Although this ensures political continuity to some extent, the outcome of Sunday's poll makes Mr. Ozal's task of governing more difficult and causes a new uneasiness in Turkey.

The referendum dealt with amending a provision of the Constitution to allow local elections to be held early. Ozal's conservative government favored such an amendment, so that elections that are scheduled for next March would be held in October or November this year.

With 86 percent of the votes counted by press time yesterday, the state television reported that 65 percent of the country's 26.5 million eligible voters opposed the amendment, and 35 percent favored it.

The opposition, seizing the referendum as an opportunity to challenge Ozal, had campaigned vigorously to present it to the public as a vote of confidence (or no-confidence) in the government.

Although Ozal argued otherwise, opinion polls indicated that most Turks took this as a test of his popularity. With indications that he would not get more than 30 percent support, Ozal warned that if he did not get ``sufficient support'' he would resign and quit politics. But he avoided clarifying what he meant by sufficient support.

The prime minister evidently regarded the 35 percent yes vote as ``sufficient.'' The opposition parties had suggested that anything below 50 percent would be a defeat.

The worsening economy is seen as the main reason for the erosion of Ozal's popularity. Inflation has climbed to 75 percent, and constant price hikes have weakened the middle class and affected the poorer people. Unemployment is rising, the Turkish lira is rapidly being depreciated, and investments have been slowing down.

Surveys have shown that many of the ``no'' voters were people who were dissatisfied with Ozal's economic policy and who wanted to express their displeasure over the living conditions.

In this respect, the popular daily Murriyet interpreted the vote as a signal to Ozal to carry on, coupled with a strong warning. ``The voter did not want a crisis by forcing the government to resign, but it also sent alarm signals about the economic distress,'' the paper said.

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