ALLY WATCH : Turkey’s Iron Lady

Turkey has been an important--and friendly--ally of the West. During the Gulf War its NATO air base proved to be an invaluable asset. Precisely because of Turkey’s vital role in the region, its roiling internal politics are always watched closely. Thus did this weekend’s local elections attract world attention.

About a year ago Tansu Ciller, a scrappy politician who claims Margaret Thatcher as her role model, became prime minister in a series of events triggered by the death of President Turgut Ozal, an enormously popular politician who was held in affectionate regard in many Western capitals. Since taking over, the American-educated Ciller has not had an easy time. But on Sunday, to virtually everyone’s surprise, Ciller’s True Path Party did very well, providing a psychological boost for her government--basically a parliamentary coalition with the Social Democratic People’s Party. And that unexpectedly strong showing bodes well for the conservative leader’s prospects in the 1996 parliamentary elections.

Despite the weekend’s success, Prime Minister Ciller must not only overcome serious economic and political corruption problems but also the challenge of dealing with the Kurds--a stateless minority with large populations in Iraq and Iran as well as Turkey. Ciller favors a severe crackdown on terrorist Kurds. But she must avoid a wholesale, indiscriminate repression of the Kurdish people that is in itself destabilizing--and creates serious problems for Turkey’s allies. The path between now and 1996 may be true, but it is also tricky.