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Profile : Turkey's First Female Prime Minister Is No Wallflower : Self-confident and reformist, she symbolizes her country's switch to youth and dynamism.

June 22, 1993|HUGH POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Tansu Ciller, soon to become the first woman prime minister of Turkey, has never harbored much doubt as to her abilities. And that's the way the 60 million people of this male-dominated, Muslim country like to have their leaders.

"I have never lost any major battle I have entered," she boldly declared to viewers of her first live television debate--a belief that must have been reinforced by her surprise showing nine days ago when she won the leadership of Turkey's ruling conservative True Path Party.

For Ciller, born into an ordinary upper-middle-class Istanbul family, it was ever thus.

As a teen-age bride she persuaded her husband to take her surname, not his--virtually unprecedented in this traditional country. At the age of 36, she was appointed Turkey's youngest professor at its most prestigious university. And unlike other Muslim women leaders like Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto or Bangladesh's Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, her rise to power in just three years of full-time politics owes nothing to any famous male relation.

In a main reception room of her house in the Turkish capital, Ankara, the 47-year-old, U.S.-educated Ciller has even hung a magazine cover featuring a caricature of herself in armor over a caption describing her as Turkey's Joan of Arc.

Her compatriots are rejoicing that at last they have a leader who seems to symbolize Turkey's youthful dynamism, sweeping aside the dull old men in business suits who had appeared ready to dominate the country after the decline and death in April of reformist President Turgut Ozal.

"The World Is Now Talking Turkey," boasted one headline here as Ciller set about forming her first Cabinet. Others proclaimed, "It's a Festival for Tansu" and "Ours Is the Prettiest."

The Istanbul stock market soared a record 10% in a single day's trading in the wake of Ciller's triumph.

Everywhere, Turks are talking about a spirit of political change--a hand-over of power in all the major parties to a new generation of leaders, acceptance of the need to overhaul the state-dominated economy, a shift from rural to urban priorities and a recognition of women's advances in Turkish society.

There is even a subtle shift in power from the strait-laced Ankara, Turkey's capital since the declaration of the republic in 1923, to Ciller's home base of Istanbul--a dynamic metropolis of 10 million, the country's financial center and a re-emerging regional hub that was once capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

"It's almost too much. Shouldn't we be worried that change for change's sake will risk giving us the same exaggerated expectations that are now haunting the Clinton Administration in America?" asked Ahmet Tan, a Turkish commentator and broadcaster.

In fact, Turks don't know quite what to expect from their prime minister-designate. In theory, she stands for an ideology of what she called "nationalist reformism." She favors faster privatization of the state sector--an urgent priority if she is to stanch a hemorrhaging national budget that is pushing Turkey's 65% annual inflation rate even higher. Her track record as minister of state in charge of the economy during the past 20 months is less than stellar. In part, she has been hamstrung by a coalition with the Social Democratic Populist Party--an arrangement she may have to continue.

One option may be for her to announce an early general election, expecting in view of her sudden surge of popularity to take more than the 28% of the vote won by the True Path Party in 1991.

Domestic politics is not her only problem, however. Her headstrong and sometimes arrogant style has alienated top Turkish bureaucrats. She also has a hard-line approach to the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Heavy bloodshed there is likely to continue as usual if, as expected, she simply delegates responsibility to the army.

Turkey's checkered human rights record is unlikely to change much, although some junior Turkish officials believe that the emergence of a woman leader will somehow translate into a message of change to the remaining torturers in police stations.

Diplomats say Ciller is impatient with any issue not at the top of her agenda and that she lacks interest and experience in diplomatic affairs. "She knows nothing about foreign policy," said one European envoy.

Nevertheless, she has a knack for making high-level friendships, receiving personal invitations to Paris from French President Francois Mitterrand and to London from Baroness Margaret Thatcher. (Not surprisingly, the Turkish press has already dubbed Ciller Turkey's version of Britain's Iron Lady.)

Ciller evidences a pronounced streak of populism reminiscent of her 68-year-old political mentor, President Suleyman Demirel, who is popularly known here as "Baba," or "Father." Her supporters have hung banners announcing: "Baba Has Gone, Mother Has Come."

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