Volume 3, No. 1 – March 1999
AMBITION FOR ALL SEASONS: TANSU CILLER*
By Ustun Reinart
Editor’s Summary: Tansu Ciller, leader of the True Path party, is one of Turkey’s most powerful politicians. As Turkey prepares for its coming elections, she is a key powerbroker for forming the next government. Yet she has constantly walked the edge of disaster, through both her political decisions and personal choices.
A blonde, stylish woman stood behind a microphone at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, on January 6, 1999. ‘In order to prevent a sabotage of the democratic system, we have taken control of the situation,’ she announced. Tansu Ciller, had surprised the country by offering support for a minority government to be formed by Bulent Ecevit, leader of the Democratic Left Party.
Thus, Turkey’s current government was dependent on the same woman who has dominated Turkish politics since 1990. Ecevit may be prime minister but Tansu Ciller can make or break his government. After scandals, blunders, and after her political career was apparently in shambles, Ciller is once more poised to hold the reigns of power.
Tansu Ciller enthralled Turkish politicians and voters early in this decade and became the darling of Turkey’s Western allies. Yet only weeks before her latest stunt, Ciller had narrowly escaped a parliamentary inquiry into an enormous fortune she had acquired during her years in political office. In the last three years she has been accused of abusing the government’s slush fund in her term as prime minister, and her name has been associated with criminal leaders. Many journalists and political analysts have called disastrous her latest stint in government as coalition partner of the Islamist Refah party.
‘She is probably the most Machiavellian politican Turkey has seen for a long time,’ said Professor Kemal Kirisci, a political scientist at Bosphorus University in Istanbul. ‘For the sake of her goal she’ll do anything. Part and parcel of her Machiavellianism is that while she has a lot of dirty linen herself, she has dirty linen on other politicians, and does not hesitate to use it.’
This year, a book entitled Maskeli Lady (The Masked Lady), an impeccably researched self-described ‘thriller’ about Ciller written by Faruk Bildirici, a columnist with the daily newspaper Hurriyet, is a phenomenal best-seller in Turkey. It documents her family background, childhood, rise to power, accumulation of wealth and changes of political position. The ‘mask’ refers to the winning smile on Ciller’s face at each public appearance. Ciller’s unsuccessful bid to have the book banned has only increased its popularity.
Tansu Ciller was the daughter of a modest middle class family. Her father had unfulfilled political ambitions which he invested in her daughter. For Tansu’s parents, it was a sacrifice to send their only daughter to Robert College, a private American school in Istanbul. There, Tansu was known for her ambition, admiration of American culture, and for concealing the fact that her parents were less wealthy than the parents of most of the other students. She married Ozer Ciller, another graduate of Robert College. The couple went to the United States for Tansu’s Master’s and her Ph.D. They had a son there and in 1970, became American citizens. Tansu’s intimate friends told Bildirici that she was never even mildly religious.
During the mid-1970s, Ozer received an attractive job offer from a large company in Turkey and the couple returned. Tansu began to teach economics at Bosphorus University (formerly Robert College). Bildirici says Tansu Ciller’s former colleagues all described her as fiercely ambitious but with a very effective personal style.
In 1990, she told her friends that she was entering politics to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey, defending Turkish laicism. Under the mentorship of Suleyman Demirel, then leader of the True Path Party, (now president), many believed the charismatic woman was just what Turkey needed to boost its contemporary image. She immediately rose to the rank of assistant to the party leader.
After Ciller’s entry into politics, the couple began to accumulate real estate in Turkey and in the United States. Ciller started the 1991 election campaign with a declaration of her wealth — a false one. She had neglected to list her possessions in the United States: 4 houses, a boat, some land and a car.
In 1991, she was elected and shared the responsibility for the ministry of the economy in the coalition government. Soon the economics professor began to surprise her party colleagues with her careless figures and unusual requests. Early in 1992, she proposed to forego the civil servants’ salaries for a month, as a budgetary measure. Her alarmed advisors had to inform Demirel who prevented the measure. Some of Ciller’s press releases were fictional. When World Bank official Michael Wieken sent Turkey a letter spelling out the conditions his organization required from Turkey, Ciller announced that the World Bank had offered Turkey unconditional support.
But despite such blunders, Tansu Ciller was riding high in 1992. She was elected as woman of the year in Turkey. Other women imitated her flowing, colorful neck scarves and bought her perfume (Beautiful by Estee Lauder). That year, Ciller even impressed Libya’s leader Muammar Qadhafi, called her a model for all Islamic women. Reporting her successful visits abroad, Turkish newspaper headlines were euphoric: ‘Our minister has charmed the Europeans!’
The Cillers were increasing their investments in the United States. They founded two separate companies and bought a large apartment block, a luxury house, a shopping center, and a hotel, with a total value of $4.5 million worth of real estate.
Tansu Ciller hinted to Turkish journalists that she was on her way to the ‘top.’ She took a leadership course in New York and began to say that Turkey was ready for a woman prime minister. But already, opposition parties were giving her a hard time, saying that her personal expenses for travel, coffee, flowers, etc., were being paid from government funds.
When then President Turgut Ozal died in 1993, Demirel became president. Ciller’s moment had come. She went after the prime minister’s job. Her public relation consultants had told her she should change her style: Wear white for a look of innocence. Walk fast for a look of dynamism. Put one of your hands on your waist during speeches for a look of authority.
Ciller personally lobbied media outlets and won their support. In June 1993, she won the party leadership and became prime minister. European newspapers called her, ‘The symbol of Modern Turkey.’
But she continued to walk along the edge of danger. Her assistants learned to be on their toes to protect her from her own blunders. She often forgot the names of foreign heads of state. On the way to a NATO summit in Brussels where the question of Russia’s membership was on the agenda, she surprised journalists by asking ‘Isn’t Russia already a Nato member?’
She also spent state money prodigiously on her private requirements, exceeding past norms. It wasn’t unusual for a government plane to make a return trip to Argentina to purchase a special ingredient for a meal, or to fly in a particular type of ice cream for the prime minister.
By the 1993 elections, Tansu Ciller had abandoned her urban, liberal image and embraced a nationalist, traditionalist one. Suddenly, she took a hard line towards the Kurdish separatists in southeastTurkey. The ties between her, the police department and the secret service grew closer. In the spring of 1994, there was a sudden increase in political murders. Ciller ordered the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of Kurdish members of Parliament belonging to the party DEP. One afternoon in spring, the DEP MPs were shoved into police vans in front of the parliament building.
By the summer of 1994, the Cillers’ wealth was beginning to make headlines. The real estate in the United States which she hadn’t declared, somehow became known. Opposition parties proposed a parliamentary investigation into the prime minister’s wealth. Ciller bargained individually with party leaders to organize a defeat of the motion. She also announced she would donate a large portion of her wealth to charity before the 1995 general elections.
Chiller campaigned on a platform of Turkey’s membership in the European Community, battling against Kurdish separatism, and the fight against the Islamist party which she called ‘the murderous merchants of religion.’ The elections on December 24, 1995 yielded no winner. The Islamists had received the highest number of votes (21%), but no party had a majority. When Mesut Yilmaz, the leader of the Motherland party, started to negotiate with the Islamist leader, Ciller accused him of ‘pushing Turkey to darkness.’ Yilmaz ended up forming a coalition government with Ciller instead.
Meanwhile, the Islamist Party was investigating Ciller’s wealth and asking questions about the disappearance of a large amount of money from the secret slush fund the day before she had left the prime minister’s office. With three different parliamentary investigations against her, Ciller was forced to leave the government. The coalition collapsed in the spring of 1996.
The Islamists had collected thick files against her. After the June elections, she began to negotiate with them. When she agreed for form a coalition with them, they stopped pursuing her. They also blocked the Social Democratic Party’s motion related to the missing slush fund money. On June 28, 1996, the new coalition was formed. The Islamist leader became the prime minister and Ciller became his assistant and minister of external affairs. Once more, she changed her image. Now, she was being seen praying in public, carrying prayer beads, covering her head.
In the fall of 1996, when a Turkish mafia leader, a police chief and a politician from Ciller’s party were found to have been travelling together in the same car after a traffic accident, one of Ciller’s close associates, Internal Affairs minister Mehmet Agar, had to resign because of his ties to organized crime and to right-wing death squad killings. Many seasoned politicians began to leave Ciller’s party. It looked as if her career was collapsing.
Today, as Turkey heads toward general elections in April 1999, Ciller’s campaign posters flaunt a religious image of herself. A couple of MPs from the Islamist party have even jumped ship and joined her group. ‘Don’t leave your sister dependent on people from other parties in order to form a government. Show me your clear support!’ she told a rally at Bursa in Western Anatolia.
Once more, Ciller is riding high in Turkish politics, though some have nicknamed her ‘Saibe,’ which means tainted or stained. Many of her former admirers in Europe and the United States have distanced themselves from her after her alliance with the Islamist party and after the publicity surrounding her wealth and her shady connections.
Still, suddenly, she is the one who decides whether Turkey’s current minority government will stand or fall. That’s power.
*This article is adapted from a version appearing in Women’s International Net (WIN) Magazine. To see WIN Magazine, go to <http://welcome.to/winmagazine>. For a free subscription: firstname.lastname@example.org with message: subscribe.