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Turkey: leftover challenges for new leaders

Turkey's parliamentary election earlier this week, in which Turgut Ozal's Motherland Party defeated a military-supported candidate, marks another step - albeit tentative - away from authoritarianism and toward civilian rule.

The very fact that the party supported by the regime was not victorious confirms that the Turkish people would like to see a more pluralistic government.

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More than three years has passed since five military men, headed by Gen. Kenan Evren, took power in a bloodless coup that booted out Ankara's impotent civilian government and installed a bemedaled junta in its place.

At that time, General Evren told me earlier this year, ''Fifty people a week were dying in terrorism from both left and right. Inflation was 100 percent. Why don't our critics in Europe and America remember that?''

The general now could point to a situation in which terrorism is practically nonexistent, inflation is down to 26 percent, and the country's economy is growing again. He could also take satisfaction in the approval of last year's military-drafted Constitution, with its strong presidency, by 91 percent of Turkish voters.

The problem, alas, is that Turkish military officers - and I count many as personal friends - are not noted either for subtle methods or half-measures. They are an exceedingly tough warrior class, conscious of their Central Asian origins, and proud to apprise you of the fact that no Turk captured by North Koreans during the Korean war ever cracked under brainwashing.

Unfortunately, some of the same toughness the Turkish military has traditionally manifested on the battlefield is now being aimed at their countrymen - to the acute dismay of human rights activists in Western Europe.

The parliamentary election is thus a step in the direction of democracy, but it was marred by the fact that only three parties were allowed to compete and 11 others, including a group of mild-mannered social democrats, were prohibited from doing so.

Not surprisingly, General Evren's government has been put on notice by the Council of Europe that human rights in Turkey must improve or Ankara may face expulsion in January - a judgment certain to affect the level of European aid that Turkey needs to meet its international debt obligations.

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But if the political and human rights issues surrounding the parliamentary election are at the heart of the media coverage, the real problem that Evren faces is elsewhere. For Western journalists that jet into Ankara and Istanbul during these occasions, the Turkish reality is essentially a Western one. Unseen are the bitter struggles against Kurdish nationalists waged quietly (but continually) by the Army, the Islamic revival in the East, the impoverished 60 percent of the population that still lives on the land, and one of the worst patterns of income distribution among the more advanced developing nations.

In fact, the problem of economic justice in an agrarian society is far more critical to the great mass of Turks than is censorship of newspapers they cannot read. Precisely 60 years after the founding of the Turkish Republic by one of the 20th century's most remarkable men, Kemal Ataturk, the avowed goal of Kemalist economic advance is as elusive as ever.

As the only secular Islamic state, the Turkish republic was to become the vehicle for what Turks call ulusal egemenlik, a term whose rough English translation is ''the national will.'' This concept is essentially populist, and it is no coincidence that the Soviet Union provided Turkey with much economic aid during the 1930s, as well as assistance in five-year planning. In the wake of World War II, wooed by American aid, Turkey turned closer to the West, and today's Turkish economy unhappily has incorporated some of the worst aspects of both socialism and capitalism.

Even though the Turkish economy grew at the rate of more than 6 percent a year during the 1960s and '70s, little was done about Turkey's weak export capacity, the unemployment that got worse as people left the land, or the fact that the bottom 60 percent of the people received only 12 percent of the national income.

When Turkey's university population quadrupled from 1960 to 1980 and when large numbers of graduates became unemployed, the stage was set for the social explosion that brought the country to the edge of civil war three years ago.

Thus, the political complexion of the Turkish government matters less than its ability to improve income distribution, breathe new life into small farming, develop the country's tremendous tourism potential, and find new labor-intensive industries that can compete successfully in the international market. Though it is far too early for a definitive verdict, Turkey's generals have so far done a better job of advancing these goals than did their disorganized civilian predecessors.

When the Evren government can ultimately improve the economy depends partly on foreign perceptions of the Ankara regime. Despite what some of the government's international critics say, Evren does not lead a military junta on the corrupt Latin American model. Evren himself is something of an ascetic, and there is no record of personal aggrandizement at the top of the military hierarchy. Moreover, the military commitment to return power to civilians is a sincere one.

The Turkish armed forces did so after ruling in 1960-61 and 1971-73.

The danger for the West is that the war of words between the Evren government and its foreign critics over political liberalization could stall economic aid and any hope of peaceful reform. This would be prevented if Ankara would ease up a bit on its domestic critics, and if Turkey's foreign detractors would adopt a more realistic attitude about what is possible three years after a virtual civil war.

America is well placed to mediate in this dispute between Ankara's pro-Western generals and their European critics. An ally that sits astride the Dardanelles, joins Europe to the Islamic world, and contributes a substantial military force to NATO is far too important to ignore.

Kevin Michel Cape has been a frequent visitor to Turkey during the past decade.

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