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Turkish surprise: generals get stiff election challenge

This country's military leaders are having trouble getting their new electoral system to work smoothly. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over the parliamentary elections scheduled for Nov. 6. Few people doubt they will take place, but how much choice will they offer?

Of 16 parties formed during the summer, only three cleared the hurdles the military established in order to take part in the election.

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Two of the parties carry the stigma of having been inspired by the military. One of these, the Nationalist Democracy Party (NDP), led by retired Gen. Turgut Sunalp, intimates it is the party the military favors.

But military backing does not automatically help. Turks are stubborn, and General Sunalp has generated little enthusiasm. So Prime Minister Bulent Ulusu, who is more popular than Sunalp, and several of his ministers have agreed to run on the NDP ticket as independents.

Until recently, the Populist Party led by Necdet Calp, a former civil servant , was not expected to get even the 10 percent of the national vote necessary to qualify for seats in parliament. It remains to be seen whether it can take some of the votes that would have gone to the Social Democratic Party (Sodep), which was barred from the elections by the generals' refusal to approve its full complement of 30 founding members.

''The left will have the sad choice of voting for puppet Calp or casting blank ballots,'' commented one journalist. That writer maintains that''40 percent of the Turkish electorate is thus being disenfranchised.''

But few impartial observers think the political left will turn out a substantial vote.

There is, however, a third group that may turn the Turkish vote into a real contest. That group is Turgut Ozal's Motherland Party. When Suleyman Demirel was prime minister, he gave Mr. Ozal the tough job of implementing the drastic economic reforms decreed on Jan. 24, 1980, a date that has gone down in Turkish history as a major turning point.

Ozal was promoted to deputy prime minister by the generals who took power on Sept. 12 of that year. His economic reforms transformed Turkey in less than three years. And the International Monetary Fund now urges other debt-ridden developing countries to emulate the Turkish model.

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Ozal favors private enterprise and minimal governmental interference. He was at the height of his effectiveness when a money-market crisis broke in June 1982 . Though not personally implicated, he was blamed for not having kept free-wheeling brokers in check.

He then resigned, and declared he would go into politics as soon as parties were allowed to operate again. But many Turks thought he could not build a broad political base. His reforms entailed too much austerity and hardship for wage-earners, some said.

But ''Turks are realists,'' says a businessman. ''They are fed up with politicians who promise the sky and deliver confusion. . . . The generals say they want a new breed of political leader who will be honest. . . . That is what Ozal is. The people trust him.''

Traveling throughout Turkey in recent weeks, this writer has found that peasants, tradesmen, intellectuals, and industrialists are enthusiastic about Ozal. Only bureaucrats seem uneasy about him.

He has been campaigning steadily, visiting provincial businessmen and labor unions, and championing free enterprise as the key to prosperity and jobs. He is organized in all 67 provinces - and in some areas is better organized than than the NDP and Populists.

Ozal also got a boost when economic figures for the first half of 1983 were released recently. They showed that exports have slowed and that the balance-of-payments gap is widening. Inflation has accelerated again. The 1983 growth target has been revised downward from 4.8 percent to 2.9 percent.

Ozal implies that the economic problem is a lack of vigorous commitment to the reform program by Finance Minister Kafaoglu.

So far, military leaders have neither criticized Ozal nor placed obstacles in his path.

But apprehension persists. A recent speech by President Evren in which he described elections like the game of football, with two competing teams, has provoked speculation that the military may be planning moves to restrict candidates of Ozal's party. The closing of two leading newspapers in mid-August also made people uneasy.

''They (generals) are acting as if they were in a weaker position than they really are,'' a professor complains.

A prominent economist says: ''Ozal would make a good prime minister. He would also be a constructive leader of the opposition. . . . We need him to give the international financial community confidence in this country. I think the generals know that.''

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