Turkish leader wants his nation to be 'Japan of the Middle East'
Turkey's new leaders have been providing Turks with a rich diet of the kind of political fare they like best: democracy in operation. November's elections gave Prime Minister Turgut Ozal's Motherland Party a clear parliamentary majority and President Kenan Evren encouraged formation of a single-party government.
Ozal is thus able to approach the task of governing with greater assurance of clear-cut legislative support than any prime minister since the 1960s. He merged more than a dozen ministries to create a cabinet of 22 members. Many independent agencies have been put under the new ministers.
The Cabinet is made up of predominantly young men who have established records as comers in industry, construction, government, and universities - many with experience in three or four fields. Half of them hold engineering degrees and all know at least one foreign language. Several have advanced degrees from American universities, such as Indiana, Michigan, and Syracuse. One minister is a retired Turkish Air Force officer.
Deputy Prime Minister Kaya Erdem has direct responsibility for overseeing all the specialized government economic agencies. Ozal has created a new department - Treasury and Foreign Trade - for dynamic Prof. Ekrem Pakdemirli. He will oversee a new export drive and implement Ozal's plan to make the Turkish lira completely convertible. Other priorities include rapid expansion of tourism and a sharp increase in foreign investment.
Ozal says he wants to make Turkey ''the Japan of the Middle East'' by expanding economic relations with countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the Arab world, while seeking new markets and outlets for construction contractors in more distant parts of the world.
He has given new meaning to his desire to expand Turkey's relations with the Middle East with a striking initiative: a revival of the Regional Cooperation for Development, which consists of Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. Iran is already Turkey's most important trading partner. In 1983, trade with Iran passed the $2 billion mark and continues to climb.
The new pattern of economic cooperation could lay the basis for longer-term political cooperation between these three countries. While the religious leadership in Iran remains isolated from most countries, the Iranians are forging a much closer relationship with Turkey. Iran depends on Turkey and Pakistan for food imports.
Ozal aims to centralize and simplify Turkey's economic leadership. He is a committed ''deregulator.'' Export licenses that required the signatures of 30 officials and usually took at least a month to secure have already been drastically simplified. Turkish exports, which remained at the 1982 level - less than $6 billion - during 1983, have begun to climb again.
Most currency controls have been removed and interest rates raised 5 to 12 points. Turks responded by forming queues to deposit their money in savings accounts. Gold took a nose dive and real estate sales have practically come to a halt. Banks are again accumulating money to lend to businessmen, who are elated.
Vehbi Koc, the Henry Ford of Turkey who at 83 is still active in managing its largest industrial conglomerate, praised Ozal in an interview last month in the newspaper Hurriyet. Ozal has established his government ''on very sound foundations. Its program is beautifully prepared,'' he was quoted as saying, ''and it is coming to grips with important issues. I wish it success.''
Private businessmen welcome the measures Ozal has taken to discipline inefficient state economic enterprises. He has announced that those which cannot meet the same standards of profitability as private firms will be sold or dissolved.
Committed as he is to free enterprise, Ozal is by no means interested only in big business. In speeches in the provinces, he emphasizes his desire to unleash the productive energies of farmers, small businessmen, and artisans.
New incentives to encourage investment and production are being devised. A tax rebate system that applies to all taxpayers took effect on Jan. 1.
Inflation, which rose last year to about 40 percent, is a serious problem, but Ozal is approaching it the same way he did in 1980-81. Then, as deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, he brought it down from 120 percent to 35 percent in less than two years. Turks appear willing to make sacrifices again to reduce inflation on the assumption that Ozal can deliver on the promises he has made.
To allow the electorate to write an early report card on his government, Ozal has set March 25 as the date for local elections. Three more parties have joined the competition in addition to the three that competed in last November's parliamentary contest.
Neither of the two parliamentary opposition parties is happy about these elections. Both of the two opposition parties have tried to block the elections by challenging their constitutionality. But so far they have not succeeded.
The party that the military originally tailored to take over - retired Gen. Turgut Sunalp's Nationalist Democracy Party - but which got the lowest vote in November, has suffered a spate of resignations.
Two of the new parties that will compete in March are widely regarded as successors to the dissolved parties of former Prime Ministers Suleyman Demirel and Bulent Ecevit. Much of the interest in these local elections will focus on their performances. If they do poorly and Ozal's party comes out ahead in much of the country, the generals will clearly have achieved one of their main goals: to create a new political party system.
Ozal favors a strong relationship with America and NATO. He would also like to see a Cyprus settlement and reduce tensions with Greece. So far Greece's Socialist prime minister, Andreas Papandreou, has shown no warmth toward the new Turkish leader.