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Election Rebuff Shakes Turkish Regime

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Voters have turned massively against Prime Minister Turgut Ozal in an election massacre that could presage political instability for one of America’s major NATO partners, substantially complete returns showed Monday.

Municipal elections Sunday in 2,000 Turkish cities and towns made it clear that a majority of Turks would be pleased if Ozal were ousted. Ozal, a dynamic and controversial reformer, acknowledged the electoral rejection Monday but said he is staying put.

Ozal’s center-right Motherland Party ran a humiliating third in voting that amounted to a referendum both on his pro-Western, free-market policies and his autocratic style of government. Spiraling inflation, government corruption, nepotism and questions about his health all hurt the 61-year-old Ozal, in the judgment of Turkish observers.

Leftist Social Democrats, Ozal’s principal parliamentary opponents, finished first with around 28% of the vote, in the process wresting from Ozal’s supporters control of Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul, the capital; Ankara, and the Aegean port of Izmir.

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Second place, with around 25.5% of the vote for mayors and councilors in 1,984 Turkish cities and towns, fell surprisingly to followers of Ozal’s fellow conservative but political nemesis, Suleyman Demirel, a former prime minister, and his True Path Party .

Ozal’s Party an Uneasy Blend

Motherland, the uneasy blend of pro-Western economic liberals and conservative Muslims that Ozal has headed since 1983, managed to collect about 21.5% of the vote. It had won 41% in municipal elections five years ago and 36% in 1987 general elections in which Ozal easily won a second five-year term as prime minister.

Analysts had expected the travails of government to cost Ozal some votes Sunday, but not even the opposition expected a Motherland collapse of such dramatic proportions. Turkey’s political universe seemed dazed Monday, uncertain what would happen next, initiates said.

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Motherland lost all but one of the first 54 provincial councils to declare winners. Istanbul, considered certain by pre-election pollsters to reelect Motherland Mayor Bedrettin Dalan, a charismatic reformer who has modernized the face of the city, went instead for a Social Democratic political newcomer. Nurettin Suzen, a 52-year-old physician, won 18 of Istanbul’s 20 districts in unseating Dalan.

As the improbable totals mounted Monday, there came opposition calls for Ozal to schedule new general elections.

“Ozal said he’d leave office if election results made it difficult for him to rule. If he is true to his word, he should do this,” Demirel said.

Deniz Baykal, secretary general of the winning Social Democratic Populist Party, said: “The political balance and perspectives in Turkey have been changed permanently. These changes must be reflected in Parliament.”

As the beneficiary of a system of proportional representation that has drawn fire from all his opponents, Ozal’s 36% of the vote in 1987 translated into two-thirds of the seats in Turkey’s Parliament.

Ozal, wounded in a finger during an assassination attempt last year, was defiant in defeat during an encounter with journalists in Ankara on Monday.

“The people wanted to give us a light slap on the cheek, but it has turned into something stronger,” he said. “Early general elections are out of the question. We were given a mandate until 1992, and we shall continue to exercise it in the service of the country.”

Notwithstanding his defiance, some observers consider that pressure from the combined opposition could force the prime minister to call elections later this year. Motherland’s defeat in that case, they speculated, might produce a strained and perhaps unstable left-right coalition government between Social Democratic populist leader Erdal Inonu and Demirel.

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As prime minister of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally that shares the longest land frontier with the Soviet Union, Ozal has turned long inward-looking Turkey toward a more modern and more Western nation that has even applied for membership in the European Community. His principal opponents fault Ozal more for his execution than his ideas.

In fostering rapid economic growth and a larger role for the private sector in a nation of nearly 55 million people, he also incurred a large foreign debt and triggered an inflation rate--now running at 72% on an annual basis--that strikes hardest at a new urban middle class.

Ozal’s modernization has been tainted by the resignation of his deputy prime minister in the wake of banking irregularities, and by his unabashed employment of relatives in key ministerial posts. His own health also has been a political issue since he left Turkey immediately after the 1987 elections for heart surgery in the United States.


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