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Turkish Secularists Back Ecevit

April 14, 1999

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) _ Cheering supporters call Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit the country’s only hope for maintaining unity, fixing the economy, and most of all, keeping the Islamic party from power.

Buoyed by the capture of a Kurdish rebel leader and favored by the military for his pro-secular stance, Ecevit’s party is climbing in the polls and appears headed to edge out its rivals in Turkey’s parliamentary elections this Sunday.

A win would be a comeback for Ecevit, who led the country in the 1970s but whose Democratic Left Party now has only 59 seats in the 550-member parliament.

Newspaper polls indicate that Ecevit’s party is likely to take about 20 percent of the vote, a fraction of a percent higher than Virtue, an Islamic party that is the other top contender. If the polls prove correct, Ecevit would still have to form alliances with rival parties to rule.

Analysts say Ecevit’s unwavering opposition to the Islamic movement is attracting voters who had previously divided their ballots among the secular parties. The scattered votes allowed the Islamic movement to wield far more influence than their numbers warranted.

``He is the only one who isn’t exploiting religion,″ Mehmet Kubat, a hairdresser, said of Ecevit. ``If he says ‘I will not make a coalition with Virtue,’ you can be sure he won’t.″

``He will ... get votes from a lot of parties, even from the ultra-nationalists,″ said Oya Berberoglu, a columnist for the Hurriyet daily.

In his 40 years in Turkish politics, the frail-looking, unassuming Ecevit has kept a squeaky-clean image. That is attracting support away from the other main secular parties, which have been plagued by scandals.

Ecevit frequently appears in a trademark navy blue cap, and has spurned fancy cars for cheaper, Turkish-made ones.

``I have never voted for a leftist party, but this time I will″ said Hayriye Cetin, a 41-year-old housewife. ``For one thing, Ecevit is honest. He is the best of the pack.″

The capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan by Turkish commandos in Kenya has further boosted the tough image of Ecevit, who ordered Turkish troops to invade Cyprus when he served as premier in 1974.

At election rallies, supporters bearing the party’s flag _ a white dove on a sky blue background _ chant ``Our hope is Ecevit.″

Other backers greet him at rallies with banners reading ``Welcome, the conqueror of Kenya.″

``He has used his time in government well, projecting the image of a trustworthy, responsible leader,″ said Ahmet Taner Kislali, a professor of political science ``And the Ocalan capture will be added to this.″

In contrast to his unyielding image, Ecevit, a former journalist, poet and translator of Sanskrit literature, appears soft and fatherly at election rallies.

He addresses crowds in a quiet voice. He is known to be deeply devoted to his wife, Rahsan, his high-school sweetheart and deputy chairwoman of the party.

Some Turks, however, seem unmoved by what newspapers are calling the ``Ecevit wind″ that is sweeping the country.

``He cannot do anything against the rise of Virtue,″ said Soner Yalcin, a waiter. ``He wasn’t even physically there when they caught (Ocalan.)″