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Vote Forces Turkish Government Collapse

Politics: Allegations of financial impropriety prompt no-confidence motion in parliament.


ANKARA, Turkey — The government of conservative Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz collapsed Wednesday after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament, plunging the country into a fresh period of political uncertainty.

Yilmaz's minority coalition with leftist leader Bulent Ecevit fell after lawmakers voted 314-214 against it.

Shortly after the vote, Yilmaz submitted his formal resignation to President Suleyman Demirel. Yilmaz will remain in office as caretaker premier until a new government is formed.

Yilmaz's fall was triggered by widespread allegations that he used his office to help an Istanbul businessman acquire a state-owned bank. It was Turkey's fourth government to collapse since 1995.

Under the Turkish Constitution, the president must now invite a political leader to try to form a new government. Traditionally, this would be the head of the largest party in parliament.

With 144 seats--more than any of its pro-secular rivals, but not enough to form a government alone--the Islamist party Virtue qualifies.

Most commentators say, however, that the military's continued opposition to the Islamists makes it unlikely that Demirel will ask them to try their hand.

"Even if he did," Islamist lawmaker Hashim Hashimi said, "no party would dare form a coalition with us."

Modern Turkey's first Islamist-led government was pressured out of power by the military last year amid accusations that it had sought to introduce Islamic rule during its stormy year in office.

Turkey's generals, self-appointed custodians of the secular pro-Western republic founded by fellow soldier Kemal Ataturk 75 years ago, remain at the forefront of a fierce campaign to snuff out the mounting influence of political Islam.

In a move widely criticized by Turkey's Western allies, the country's highest court dissolved the Islamist Welfare Party earlier this year and banned its top leaders from politics for five years. The Islamists then regrouped under the Virtue banner.

Virtue leader Recai Kutan has been trying to move closer to the pro-secular establishment. Kutan's attempts at moderation have included recruiting female members who do not cover their heads, in violation of the Koran.

He has also shed Welfare's anti-Western rhetoric and has become a familiar face at U.S. Embassy cocktail parties in Ankara, the capital.

However, sources inside the military say the top brass remains unswayed by Virtue's new image.

Many commentators predict that the most likely government to emerge is another coalition between Yilmaz and Ecevit. In this scenario, they will be joined by right-wing leader Tansu Ciller. Together, the three parties would have a comfortable majority.

Ecevit, who is best known internationally as the man who ordered Turkey's 1974 military invasion of Cyprus, would become prime minister under this arrangement. Western governments would not welcome such a prospect because they view the septuagenarian as an obstacle to reuniting the Mediterranean island.

Early signs of a deal between Yilmaz and Ciller emerged Monday when Yilmaz helped clear his former rival of major corruption charges being probed by the parliament at his instigation.

The government's collapse comes as Turkey finds itself embroiled in a deepening dispute with Italy over Rome's refusal to hand over a Kurdish rebel leader whom Ankara blames for the deaths of nearly 30,000 Turks. Tens of thousands of angry Turkish demonstrators have taken to the streets in recent days to protest Italy's stance.

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