James H. Meyer is a free-lance journalist and teacher residing in Turkey.
Tansu Çiller came to office in May 1993 amid a blaze of favorable publicity. Turkey's first female prime minister was trained as an urban economist, spoke fluent English, forcefully made the case against political Islam, and had a charming personality. She then showed her political skills by managing to stay in power through the kaleidoscopic changes of Turkish politics over the next four years, changes for which she herself was primarily responsible.
Today, however, Çiller is fighting for her political survival. Not only is she out of power for the first time in four years, but she is also beginning to suffer fallout from corruption allegations. More serious yet, Çiller is widely accused of doing great damage to Turkey's political life. Her coalition with the fundamentalists of the Refah (Welfare) Party from July 1996 to July 1997 is seen as creating a condition of instability in Turkey unknown since the bad old days around 1980; and she is blamed for causing the country to lose a year in its effort to restructure the economy. In other words, Çiller's greatest crime may be the one for which she cannot be formally tried: selfishly and needlessly disrupting Turkish politics.
How did the golden girl of Turkish politics fall so far, so fast?
Actually, allegations of financial misdeeds dogged Çiller from before her political career. In 1983, Çiller and her husband Özer were implicated in a scandal tied to the collapse of Istanbul Bankasi, one of Turkey's largest private banks at the time. Çiller's husband Özer was the bank's general manager, while Tansu maintained close, although unofficial, relations with it. It later turned out that the Çillers had set up at least eight companies to which Istanbul Bankasi had lent money. The bank's failure was no small matter; the Turkish government assumed its debts and had to devote two percent of its 1983 budget to squaring them.1 Though Çiller was never formally charged with wrongdoing, this incident meant that she had a reputation for dishonesty and shady dealing from before her assumption of the premiership.
Allegations against Çiller during her years in high office include illegally tampering with the privatization of two state companies, the misuse of the prime ministry's discretionary funds, as well as involvement in the scandal known as Susurluk that has rocked Turkey since last November.
Tofaş and Tedaş The most straightforward charges against Çiller hold that, during her first tenure as prime minister (May 1993-December 1995), she improperly interfered in the privatization of Tedaş (an electric company) and Tofaş (an automobile company). After the state privatization board had collected sealed bids from companies interested in buying the government's shares of the two concerns, Çiller allegedly demanded that the bids be brought to her. Upon being returned to the privatization board, it was then discovered that the bids had been opened. Çiller is charged with illegally opening the bids in the absence of the privatization board (which she denies), giving her an opportunity to tamper with the process for financial gain.
The Tofaş and Tedaş accusations, which appeared at the end of 1995, received muted but increasing publicity in the campaign leading up to the elections of December 24, 1995. In the fragmented political scene that emerged from those elections, however, corruption investigations against Çiller began to mix with politics, eventually leading to the unlikely partnership between Çiller and Refah leader Erbakan.
The 1995 elections. Three parties emerged form the December 1995 elections with roughly twenty percent of the vote. First among them was Erbakan's Refah Party, with 157 seats in the 550-seat parliament. Finishing second and third were the ideologically similar True Path and Motherland parties, with 135 and 133 seats, respectively.
In the election campaign, Çiller had claimed that Refah was a force trying to lead Turkey "back to the dark ages" and that voting for Motherland, and thus splitting the secular-right vote, was tantamount to voting for Refah. Mesut Yılmaz of the Motherland Party, for his part, called for the formation of an "anti-Çiller coalition" after the election, and even went so far as to sign a statement of intent to form a government with Erbakan. It was only after Yılmaz came under intense pressure from the business community that makes up so much of his party's (and True Path's) supporters, that he backed out of the deal.
In March 1996, however, True Path and Motherland finally struck a deal. Çiller and Yilmaz would take turns being prime minister, with Yilmaz going first. After years of bitter rivalry, it seemed that Turkey's two center-right parties had finally united.
The Motherland-True Path coalition, however, was to prove short-lived. Acting in his capacity as leader of the opposition, Erbakan quickly announced his intention to introduce a motion calling for a parliamentary investigation into Çiller's role in the Tofaş and Tedaş privatizations. Such an investigation would have been the first step towards lifting Çiller's parliamentary immunity and would have all but made the prospect of her assuming the premiership impossible. The motion, therefore, put Yilmaz in a difficult spot. To distinguish himself from Çiller, a more charismatic leader whose platform very much resembled his own, he had made Çiller's reputed corruption into an election issue. After having demanded an investigation into the Tofaş and Tedaş privatizations during the campaign, Yılmaz was now put into a position of either fracturing his newly-formed government or eating his words and looking like a hypocrite. Deciding he wasn't that hungry, Yilmaz voted in favor of the investigations, putting the "MotherPath" coalition on very shaky ground.
"Covered payments." A bizarre sequence of events known as the "covered payments" scandal then destroyed that coalition for good. In early May 1996, when Yılmaz and Çiller were yet coalition partners, Yılmaz announced that Çiller several months earlier had withdrawn more than $6 million from the prime minister's discretionary fund without telling anyone how she had spent the money. The discretionary fund is often used for special intelligence operations and other purposes that cannot be made public. Tradition, however, has it that the outgoing prime minister gives an account to his successor on how the money has been spent. Çiller, however, citing reasons of "national security" refused to tell either Yılmaz or President Süleyman Demirel. Finally, following an "Anatolian Tour" to state her case in Turkey's heartland, she returned to Ankara for a showdown discussion with Demirel. Emerging from their early June meeting, Çiller announced that all had been cleared up. Demirel announced that same day, however, that Çiller's explanation was unsatisfactory and he expressed surprise at her announcement.
Cornered, Çiller turned to the only politician who didn't demand that she account for the discretionary fund expenditures: Necmettin Erbakan. In a shocking turn of events, she broke with Yilmaz and joined forces with Refah, making Erbakan prime minister. Not surprisingly, the new government made its first order of business voting down an opposition proposal to investigate the Tofaş-Tedaş and discretionary funds scandals (which Erbakan himself had proposed just weeks earlier).
Çiller's reluctance to face hearings in these twin scandals had great consequence. For the country, it placed a fundamentalist Muslim party in power for the first time in Turkey's seventy-four year history as a republic. For Çiller, this fateful move kept her out of court for another year or more (being part of the ruling coalition, she was protected from the prospect of having her parliamentary immunity lifted and being brought to trial). At the same time, it more than anything else sealed her doom in Turkish politics.
Then erupted another scandal, the most infamous of all those revolving around Çiller. It began as a simple traffic accident on the evening of November 3, 1996, outside the town of Susurluk in Turkey's west. Before long it devolved into a litany of intrigue, including accusations of state-mafia connections and state-sponsored assassinations.
In the traffic mishap, a Mercedes car pulling out of a gas station crashed into an oncoming truck. Three of the Mercedes' four passengers were killed: Huseyin Kocadag, a former captain in the Special Operations Unit, a government anti-terrorist unit; a man named Mehmet Özbay; and Özbay's girlfriend Gonca Us.2 The lone survivor was Sedat Bucak, a True Path Party member of parliament from the southeast city of Urfa.
Within hours of the crash, however, it came out that Özbay was none other than Abdullah Catli, a right-wing terrorist from Turkey's "time of troubles" in the 1970s. Interpol had been looking for Catli ever since his 1982 escape from a Swiss prison, where he had been held on drug charges. Further complicating matters, the local police announced finding a cache of automatic weapons and silencers, many of them property of the Interior Ministry, inside the luggage compartment of the Mercedes.
Further investigation in the days following the accident revealed that Catli had no fewer than eight (valid) national identity cards made out in different names. He also held two Turkish diplomatic passports which, to make matters more interesting, had been personally signed by the True Path interior minister of the time, Mehmet Agar. Perhaps most shocking of all, fingerprints found on the Kalishnikov that killed Kurdish businessman and casino operator Lütfü Topal in 1995 turned out to be those of Abdullah Catli. This led to charges that the government, or at least some portions of it, was involved in the Topal assassination. But why it should have done so has not been answered.
In the parliamentary investigation that followed, Agar claimed that national security reasons prevented him from discussing Catli's relation to his ministry. Nor could he discuss why he had supplied Catli with identity cards and passports under false names, nor how Interior Ministry weapons wound up with Catli in Bucak's Mercedes.3
Sedat Bucak, the True Path Party member of parliament who survived the car accident, told in his testimony of a casual relationship with Catli, whom he claimed to know only as Mehmet Özbay . This despite the facts that turned up: Bucak had known Catli for four years prior to the accident, had met both Gonca Us and Catli's legal wife, and had gone on vacation with him. In often contradictory testimony, Bucak explained that he had met Catli at a dinner party in 1992, and the two occasionally saw one another after that. Bucak claims the two men had coincidentally bumped into each other in Istanbul in November 1996, when they decided to visit a friend of Bucak's in another city; that was when the accident took place. Asked about the weapons and silencers in the back, Bucak proclaimed his puzzlement over how they got there and speculated about their having been planted after the accident.
As members of parliament, Agar and Bucak both enjoy parliamentary immunity, which means they cannot be subject to a formal police investigation. But removing their immunity requires a mere majority vote in parliament. So long as Çiller was part of the ruling coalition, she made sure that the two True Path deputies continued to enjoy protection. This has led to speculation that Çiller and her husband Özer-who has been accused of having mafia links-are also implicated in the scandal. With Refah (because of its ideology) and True Path (due to its leader) both isolated, a deal was struck whereby Refah would support True Path in not lifting the immunity of Agar and Bucak (not to mention Çiller), while True Path gave support to Refah in its ideological battle against the country's military.
In the end, however, rumors of a coup coupled with an extraordinary set of press conferences by the military against the coalition led to the fall of the Refah-True Path government in June 1997. This resulted from the defection of nearly one-third of Çiller's parliamentary deputies. In the July 12 confidence vote, only ninety-one of Çiller's original 135 True Path deputies joined her in voting against the government headed by Yilmaz, Çiller's arch-rival.
In Turkey, where stories of corruption big and small are not uncommon,4 financial scandals are often quickly forgotten. Indeed, Çiller faced little trouble from within her party during the initial Tofaş-Tedaş and discretionary funds accusations. The True Path leader's unforgivable sin, however, was the coalition agreement with Refah. It has turned her own party against her while bringing in no new support-Refah's voters are hardly pro-Çiller. Turkey's secular voters, who may have disliked Çiller before, now despise her. Isolated atop a crumbling party, Çiller may have made her last political mistake.
On July 12, 1997, Necmettin Erbakan's fundamentalist Muslim-led coalition fell from power in Turkey. In its stead, Yilmaz put together a hodgepodge of right and left parties who agreed only on one thing: the need to keep power out of the hand of the fundamentalists. For the time being, at least, this change in government brought an end to a months-long political drama that pitched Erbakan's coalition against the Turkish military, guardians of the country's secular tradition. It also created at least a possibility that the corruption that has been eating away at the heart of Turkish politics will be addressed.
Although it is too early to know where all this will lead for Turkish politics, several points do seem safe to assert. First, Tansu Çiller may end up destroying True Path in an effort to remain its leader. Second, the center-right in Turkey is likely to remain divided, for only a handful of deputies leaving True Path have chosen to join Motherland. Instead, the majority have opted to either sit as independents or join the new Democratic Turkey Party of Ismet Sezgin, a former True Path minister. Third, Çiller's alleged corruption and attempted cover-up have done grievous damage to Turkish democracy by helping the fundamentalists reach power, increasing popular mistrust in the leadership, and bringing the military back into politics.
1 Doğan Akin, Uçuran Holding (Ankara, Bilgi Yayinevi, 1995) pp.25-50.
2 They had married in a religious ceremony but not in a civil procedure. Özbay also had a legal wife. For a timeline of the Susurluk revelations, see the Turkish monthly Tempo, April 2, 1997, pp. 20-23.
3 For Agar's statements, Veli Ozdemir, ed., Susurluk Belgeleri (Istanbul: Scala Yayincilik, 1997). pp. 229-94; for Bucak's, ibid., pp. 295-54.
4 Such as the scandals regarding the family of former President Turgut Özal, as well as current President Süleyman Demirel's brother, Yahya Demirel.