The controversial politician and leader of the True Path Party, Tansu çiller (born 1946), served as the prime minister of Turkey from 1993 until 1996, during a period of extreme political upheaval and economic volatility. She began her career as a professor of economics before entering politics in 1990.
Tansu çiller was born in 1946 in Istanbul into a comfortable middle-class home, the daughter of a retired government official. She went to the American Girls' School and then on to Bosphorus University (formerly Robert College), from which she graduated with a degree in economics in 1967. In 1963, at the age of 17, she married Özer Üçuran, who adopted her second name; he soon became an influential figure in her life. çiller came to the United States for higher education and received her Master's degree and Ph.D. in economics from the Universities of New Hampshire and Connecticut, respectively. Before returning to Turkey in 1973 she taught economics at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
çiller joined the faculty as assistant professor of economics at Bosphorus University in Istanbul in 1974 and was promoted to associate professor in 1978 and professor in 1983. During these years she established good relations with Turkey's business community and wrote a number of reports on the country's economic problems for TÜSIAD, the acronym for the Turkish Association of Businessmen and Industrialists. These reports account for most of her academic publications. Meanwhile her husband had gone into business, acquiring the franchise for "7-Eleven" stores in Turkey and the directorship of a bank that went bankrupt in the economic crisis of the 1980s. However, this did not undermine the financial fortunes of the çillers, who had acquired great wealth through speculation in land and real estate.
The 1980s were a turbulent decade politically for Turkey. After the military takeover of September 12, 1980, all political activity was frozen, parties were dissolved, and politicians banned from politics. When politics was restored in 1983 only new and untainted people were allowed to form parties. The door was thrown open to a new generation of politicians, of whom Turgut Ozal became the most famous. Tansu çiller did not enter politics at that point; she came into the public eye in the late 1980s as one of the critics of Turgut Ozal's economic policies. The support she enjoyed in the business community enabled her to enter Süleyman Demirel's circle as a consultant on economic matters. With the fortunes of his True Path Party (TPP) on the rise, Demirel had her join the party in 1990. When general elections were held in October 1991, she was one of the architects of her party's economic policy. The TPP emerged as the largest party in Parliament with 178 seats but without the majority necessary to form its own government. çiller won the seat for Istanbul and entered Parliament.
Demirel formed a coalition government with the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) and appointed çiller to be minister of state responsible for the economy. Her economic stabilization program was presented on January 17, 1992. Its goal was to stabilize the economy by sustaining a reasonable growth rate of 5.5 percent in 1992 (as compared to 2 percent in 1991); by tackling inflation, which stood at around 70 percent, and reducing it to 42 percent; and by narrowing the budget deficit. çiller proposed reforming the taxation system to broaden the base and restructuring the state-owned economic enterprises so that they would become profitable and therefore attractive to private buyers. The success of the program also depended on foreign investments and loans, and therefore çiller traveled around the world selling her ideas, especially in Germany, the United States, and Japan.
One can only speculate as to how Tansu çiller's political career would have progressed had not certain events intervened to open new doors. The death of President Turgut Ozal in April 1993 left the presidency vacant, leading to Süleyman Demirel's election on May 16. That left the posts of leader of the True Path Party and prime minister vacant. çiller was not the obvious choice; she was a newcomer to the party and relatively inexperienced, and there were more seasoned candidates (such men as Cindoruk and Ismet Sezgin) who had stronger claims to leadership. But çiller had the advantage of being younger, female, attractive, and well educated as compared to her rivals. Not only was she an economist, she was fluent in English and German, had a cosmopolitan outlook, and was well acquainted with the West. Around the world voters seemed to prefer young, dynamic leaders, and Turkey was no exception. The young Mesut Yilmaz had taken over the Motherland Party from Ozal; Inönü's SHP went in the same direction when he retired and a younger leader was elected in September 1993. It made good political sense to elect an attractive woman, happily married with two sons, as TPP's leader and thereby strengthen the party's position in the coming election. She would counter the qualities of her rivals, especially among female voters, who made up over half the electorate. The open support that the business community gave çiller could not be ignored either. Moreover, in the West her success was expected to enhance Turkey's image as a forward-looking Muslim country in an Islamic world which too often seemed to be looking to the past for inspiration.
Tansu çiller was elected leader of the TPP on June 13, 1993, and was appointed Turkey's first woman prime minister. Her coalition with the SHP won the vote of confidence on June 25 and Tansu çiller took charge of Turkey's destiny. Her success would depend on her ability to find answers to Turkey's many problems, especially the economy and the Kurdish question, and these would test the abilities of any leader.
As time passed Tansu çiller proved ineffective at controlling the parliament, much less the dire problems facing the Turkish people. Kurdish uprisings, runaway inflation, and a desperately shrinking economy plagued her tenure as prime minister. The intrinsic instability of the Turkish government further aggravated the situation. By 1995 çiller was beset by personal accusations. She resigned under pressure in September of that year. One month later, on October 15, a vote of confidence was taken and çiller was permitted to continue as acting prime minister until the matter could be resolved. Early in 1996 çiller agreed to a coalition government whereby Mesut Yilmaz of the Motherland Party would serve as prime minister until 1997, at which time çiller would reclaim the job. çiller, however, never returned to her post as the serious allegations against her continued to mount. On June 6, 1996 Yilmaz was himself censured by the Parliament, and the government collapsed. By July 8 a new coalition had been formed. This time çiller agreed to serve as deputy prime minister under Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party. According to the arrangement çiller would be reinstated as prime minister the following year. On June 18, 1997 Erbakan resigned in an effort to force an early election, which in turn would prevent çiller from reclaiming the position of prime minister.
Further Reading on Tansu çiller
For more information on çiller, see The Economist, March 25, 1995; October 21, 1995; March 9, 1996; June 8, 1996; June 15, 1996; June 21, 1997. On the Internet, visit the site http://www.mfa.gov.tr:80/grupb/ciller.htm.