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Doubts Raised Over Turkish PM's Health, Rule - 2002-06-07

Pressure is mounting on Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to step down for health reasons. Concern over the prime minister's ability to lead the country grew Friday, after he failed to attend a key meeting to discuss democratic reforms.

Prime Minister Ecevit's absence from the meeting that brought together the country's president and leading politicians increased speculation that he is no longer fit to govern.

Mr. Ecevit has been in and out of hospital since May 28. The 77-year-old leader is being treated for an array of ailments, including a spinal disorder, blood clots and a neurological disease.

President Necdet Sezer had called Friday's meeting to forge consensus between the main political parties over reforms needed to secure Turkey's entry into the European Union.

Tansu Ciller, the leader of the main opposition True Path Party did not attend, saying Mr. Ecevit's absence rendered the debate meaningless.

The mainstream media and Turkey's influential business leaders have been stepping up calls for Mr. Ecevit to hand over power to a caretaker prime minister from his Democratic Left Party.

Mr. Ecevit is resisting, saying it is only a matter of time before he resumes his prime ministerial duties.

The political uncertainty is adding to Turkey's economic problems.

News of Mr. Ecevit's absence from Friday's meeting sent share prices tumbling on the Istanbul Stock Exchange. Analysts say that, even if Mr. Ecevit were to step down, a smooth transition of power seems increasingly unlikely.

One of Mr. Ecevit's partners in the ruling coalition is Devlet Bahceli of the ultra-nationalist National Action Party. Mr. Bahceli said Mr. Ecevit's withdrawal would trigger the government's collapse, and he has strongly hinted that he will not serve under any other prime minister.

On Friday, Mr. Bahceli said his party could withdraw from the government, because it opposes reforms sought by the European Union as a precondition for beginning membership negotiations.

The nationalists oppose abolishing the death penalty, saying it would benefit Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is awaiting a death sentence following his treason conviction in 1999.

The nationalists also oppose lifting a ban on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language.