- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

ISTANBUL The decision by Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to stay home and rest for a second week after an emergency hospital visit has sparked a fierce debate over the government's stability and Mr. Ecevit's fitness to lead Turkey, America's staunchest Muslim ally in the Middle East.

Mr. Ecevit leads a fragile three-party coalition government that has struggled to stabilize the country amid its worst economic crisis in 50 years. He has continued to work from home this week, but pictures of him in his bedroom pajamas with side tables full of medicine bottles have only underlined his unsteady condition.

"Turkey cannot be governed in pajamas," the Islamic newspaper Vakit blared in a headline over a picture of a frail-looking Mr. Ecevit. The paper said the country was suffering damage at home and abroad from the prime minister's poor health and refusal to step aside.

Mehmet Bekaroglu, a spokesman for the Islamist Saadet Party, said the ambiguity was causing instability in the economy and roiling financial and currency markets.

"If he cannot carry out his duties, the government partners and parliament should take action," Mr. Bekaroglu said. "The prime minister should withdraw now."

Turkish stock markets and the local currency plunged this week on news that Mr. Ecevit would not return to his office as expected on Monday and would spend more time recuperating.

The prime minister reportedly was suffering from an intestinal infection that sent him to an Ankara hospital on May 4 with severe abdominal pain. He was released a day later when doctors could find no serious condition.

The 76-year-old prime minister added to the debate over the government's stability by stating that the coalition would disintegrate if he were to step aside. He said his health was fine and angrily dismissed the mounting calls for early elections.

"I am fed up with talk of early elections," he said on private news channel NTV. "Turkey has had a severe economic crisis. It has only recently recovered from this crisis. Early elections would destroy our economic gains," he said.

"I do not even want to hear the words 'early election,'" said Mr. Ecevit, who likely will not run for another term in elections scheduled for 2004.

Conservative coalition partner Devlet Bahceli, who has been mentioned as a temporary replacement for Mr. Ecevit, has sought to quell any speculation that he should take over the job.

"The prime minister will be back in his office soon," Mr. Bahceli said. "There is no government vacuum in the country." He said elections would be held "in the usual time," in two years.


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