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Turkey Needs a New Leader

July 12, 2002

Turkey, the only Muslim-majority member of NATO, is a valuable rarity: a Muslim nation that also is a secular democracy. A longtime ally of the United States, it is a leader of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. But while Turkey is applauded abroad, at home the government is in bad shape. If it collapses, the fundamentalist Islamic White Party could rise again, triggering a reaction by the staunchly secular army.

Frail and ailing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit clings to power as his political coalition crumbles. He insists he will stay in office until parliamentary elections are held in two years.

Ecevit, 77, emerged in public recently after two months of struggling with ill health. During his absence, the government was virtually paralyzed and racked by political strife among factions in the ruling coalition. At least six Cabinet ministers resigned this week. More than 30 members of parliament have quit Ecevit's Democratic Left Party in protest at his refusal to step down. Those who want to reform government to bring it closer to Europe and those who oppose civil reforms are hardening their lines. The only point of agreement between nationalists and center-right members of the coalition is that they all want Ecevit to hand over power.

Ecevit should pick a successor and bow out. The economic and political problems that besiege Turkey demand a new and invigorated leadership capable of stabilizing the economy and preserving a $17-billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund. Turkey wants membership in the European Union, which would require greater financial stability. To join, the government also would have to increase civil freedoms and ban police torture to comply with European standards.

Even though only 3% of Turkey's territory is considered to be in Europe, the vast majority of Turks have made it clear they see their future from a European perspective.

The United States should do everything in its power to persuade Ecevit, a national hero in the 1980s for his defiance of the ruling military junta, to step down now. A peaceful, secular Muslim country that is a reliable partner of the Western alliance in such a strategic location adds to global stability.

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