Modern Turkey's first conservative Islamic prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, resigned today under pressure from the adamantly secular armed forces.
Erbakan, head of the Welfare Party, stepped down as part of a plan to rotate the prime minister's office to his partner in a year-old coalition government, Tansu Ciller of the secularist Truth Path Party. The two have agreed to maintain their coalition but to move toward early elections next fall in hopes of strengthening their mandate.
Erbakan's role in the meantime was not spelled out. The plan, which must be approved by the president, is unlikely to appease a military leadership angered by Erbakan's support of fundamentalist Islamic practices and his diplomatic overtures to Turkey's Muslim neighbors. A government source predicted top officers will be satisfied only when a government excluding Erbakan is in place.
The standoff marked the latest chapter in Turkey's intensifying identity crisis, pitting the secular government and traditions -- established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk when he created the modern Turkish republic in 1923 -- against conservative Muslims eager to restore Islam to a public role in the country's politics, economics and education system.
President Suleyman Demirel, a staunch secularist, is charged with appointing Erbakan's successor, and he has given no indication he will select Ciller.
Traditionally, the president has chosen the leader of the next biggest party in parliament to succeed as prime minister. In the current situation, that would mean the conservative Motherland Party leader, Mesut Yilmaz. His secular party has 129 seats in parliament, surpassing the 116 seats held by Ciller's True Path. Erbakan's Welfare had 158 seats prior to some recent resignations. Demirel is scheduled to meet Thursday with Yilmaz, as well as with the leaders of three other parties.
Erbakan told reporters after resigning that he had handed the president a declaration signed by three parties -- Welfare, True Path and the small right-wing Grand Unity Party -- pledging support for a reconstituted Welfare-True Path coalition under Ciller. The three parties would hold a small majority in the 550-seat parliament, he said.
Ciller, a former prime minister who angered the secular establishment when she agreed to form a government with Erbakan last June, today underscored the coalition's determination to stand up to pressure from the military and other secular institutions, including the judiciary, which has begun proceedings to dissolve the Welfare Party.
"Our people don't like to be forced by other powers," she said. "There is no power beyond the will of the people."
Military leaders issued their strongest warning yet to the government last week, saying the army will use force, if necessary, to counter a radical Islamic movement that it has identified as the nation's primary threat and that it accuses Erbakan of encouraging. The army cited its objections to the expanding role of Islamic brotherhoods, Koranic schools that teach fundamentalist doctrine and businesses operated by religious activists who they said are intent on establishing an Islamic state.
The military warnings have fueled speculation that the armed forces, which have staged three coups since 1960, are prepared to intervene again. Military leaders have ruled out another takeover, which would likely harm Turkey's relations with the United States and its other allies in NATO.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright issued a veiled warning against a military coup last Friday, saying that any changes in Turkey's government should occur "within a democratic context and with no extra-constitutional approach." The army long has seen itself as the guardian of the secular tradition instituted by Ataturk. Top officers have been infuriated by Erbakan's overtures to Iran and Libya and his attempts at Islamic reforms at home, such as allowing women students to wear head scarves according to conservative Muslim tradition.