fortysomething woman takes the helm of a conservative political party eager to offer a bright new face to the voters. A relative newcomer to politics, she becomes her country’s first female prime minister. But even as she takes office, she faces intractable problems of national unity and crippling government debt.
The script might have been written for Prime Minister Kim Campbell. But it also fits another woman who is breaking tradition in a country where men’s grip on power has long been even tighter than it is in Canada. Tansu Ciller, a forceful, American-educated economist, won the leadership of Turkey’s ruling True Path party on June 13, the same day that Campbell became Tory leader, and is expected to be formally approved by parliament as her country’s prime minister this week. And like Campbell, Ciller displays a selfconfidence that some say borders on arrogance: on the wall of her living room hangs a magazine cover portraying her in armor as a Turkish version of Joan of Arc.
Even before she officially takes office, the 47-year-old Ciller (pronounced “Chilla”) has become a symbol of fundamental change in Turkey. Her triumph over two older male
rivals represents a shift in -
power to a younger generation, as well as a notable victory for women in a Muslim country. But Ciller’s rise also underlines the dynamism of Turkey’s private sector and the resurgence of bustling commercial Istanbul over the staid capital, Ankara. Along with her husband, Ozer, she amassed a fortune, which by some estimates amounts to $60 million, through real estate speculation in Istanbul. Fluent in English and German, Ciller became Turkey’s youngest full professor at the age of 36, and entered politics only three years ago. Turks, who pay keen attention to their image abroad, are rejoicing that they fi-
nally have a fresh, modern leader who represents much that Turkey aspires to be. One Istanbul newspaper, Sabah (Morning), could not resist headlining an article about Campbell’s victory with the Waspish comment: “Ours Is Prettier.”
Ciller has become adept at reconciling her gender and ambition with the conservative Muslim strands in Turkish society. The bestknown story about her is that when she married at age 17 she persuaded her husband to adopt her family name, something almost unheard-of in Turkey. But in a television interview after her election, she sat demurely be-
side her husband, a former banker whose businesses include a chain of 7-Eleven convenience stores, and said that “of course at home my husband is the head of the family.” Likewise, she wears stylish Chanel suits but is careful to respect Islamic tradition by draping a light veil over her hair when she visits conservative rural areas. She won her biggest applause from True Path party members when she described how beautiful she finds the Muslim call to prayer. “I have always been proud that we have been a secular and democratic model among Muslim countries,” she told one interviewer. “But I am also a believer.” Ciller’s careful approach reflects both the gains that Turkish women have made in recent years—and the barriers that still exist. Service industries such as banking and finance include many female middle managers, and more than half the country’s doctors are women. But in other areas they have lagged behind. There are only eight women in the 450-seat parliament, and compulsory textbooks in Turkish schools still teach: “The father is the chief of the family. The mother is his assistant and best friend.”
Nonetheless, Ciller is the first woman to win the leadership of an Islamic country without relying on a family connection. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, effectively inherited her political position from her late father, while the current leader of Bangladesh, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of a former dictator of the country. Ciller comes from an upper middleclass Istanbul family with no history of involvement in politics, which makes her rapid rise to the top a purely personal achievement. It also makes her the symbol of a new political generation which does not define itself—as older politicians do—according to where they stood and what they did during Turkey’s three military coups between 1960 and 1980.
Ciller’s biggest challenge will be managing Turkey’s economy. As economics minister for the past 19 months, she had only mixed success. While the economy is growing by a brisk 5.9 per cent a year, inflation is running at 65 per cent and Turkey’s international credit rating was downgraded while she was in charge—in large part because of soaring government debt. In private, Ciller has blamed her onetime mentor and predecessor as prime minister, Süleyman Demirel, who is now president, for undermining her efforts to
balance the budget. She acknowledges Margaret Thatcher as her main political model (she made a point of being photographed with Thatcher during a recent visit to London), and advocates faster privatization of state-owned firms.
In fact, Ciller is widely expected to appoint Turkey’s first minister responsible for privatization as a key step towards reducing the country’s bloated public sector. State-owned companies employ 550,000 people, and Ciller maintains that their chronic losses account for 70 per cent of the government’s deficit. Previous Turkish governments dragged their heels on selling off state companies, partly because they used them for patronage purposes. But the new prime minister appears to be much more of a risk-taker than Demirel—a cautious, old-style power-broker— and has promised to move quickly. “I am brave, I have no time to lose,” she told an interviewer. ‘Turkey is at a critical point. We are up against a wall. We will either climb over it or be crushed at the bottom.”
Ciller will also have to tackle an urgent threat to national unity: the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey that has
claimed 20 to 30 lives a day ever since a ceasefire broke down in late May. Militant Kurds dramatically underlined that problem late last month when they occupied or attacked Turkish diplomatic offices and banks
across Europe. Aides to Ciller say she is prepared to break new ground by offering the Kurds wider democratic and cultural rights, such as broadcasting and access to education in their own language.
But at the same time, she has left no doubt that she will support the army in its nine-year
fight against guerrillas from the extreme separatist Kurdish Workers Party, which has warned that it is about to unleash its fiercest campaign ever. ‘We are as hard as rock here,” Ciller maintains. We will continue the struggle against terrorism in an implacable way.” Past experience, though, indicates that there is little chance of defeating the Kurdish guerrillas by stepping up military action against them.
Ciller has wasted no time in establishing her authority. First, she persuaded parliamentarians to delay their vacations and continue sitting throughout July in order to get to work on the country’s problems. Then, she outmanoeuvred the opposition and won special powers from parliament to carry out her reform program. Finally, she dropped 17 old-guard ministers when she unveiled her new 32-member cabinet, a clear sign that she intends to start with a clean slate. And Ciller has one big advantage that Kim Campbell might well envy: she does not have to call a general election until 1996.
ANDREW PHILLIPS in London with HUGH POPE in Istanbul
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.