ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's former foreign minister launched a new political party on Friday to topple Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, who is fighting to stay in power despite poor health and a mutiny within his Cabinet.
Speaking soon after Ismail Cem's announcement, Ecevit said that he would not resign and added that he was naming his close ally, Sukru Sina Gurel, to replace the popular foreign minister.
"We have to carry on until the end," Ecevit said, referring to scheduled elections in 2004. "At this stage, I am on top of my duties, I am obligated to be."
He said, however, that he would have no choice but to leave government if his coalition loses its majority in parliament. The coalition has 291 seats in the 550-member parliament, a majority of just 15.
The United States has been watching Turkey's political crisis closely as it considers military action against neighboring Iraq. Turkey is an important U.S. ally that could provide bases for such an attack. The Turkish military also recently took control of international peacekeeping forces in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Cem said his political party — which is still unnamed — would be pro-Western, based on social democratic principles, and dedicated to carrying out reforms aimed at reaching Turkey's goal of membership in the European Union.
"Turkey needs an effective administration," Cem said. "Our party will take the lead in a new social unity ... to renew Turkey."
He said the movement would include economy minister Kemal Dervis and former Deputy Premier Husamettin Ozkan.
Cem, who stepped down Thursday, was the seventh and most prominent Cabinet member to resign this week, dealing the most serious blow yet to Ecevit's government. Dozens of legislators have also left Ecevit's Democratic Left Party in a mass mutiny that calls into question whether the government can survive much longer.
Cem and Dervis are two of the country's most popular politicians and the new party would pose an enormous challenge to Ecevit's already teetering administration.
The resignations, which began Monday, came as Ecevit's health has deteriorated and his coalition members began bickering over EU-oriented reforms, such as abolishing the death penalty and granting minority Kurds greater rights.
"The government has fallen to a position of not being able to govern because of infighting," Cem said.
Political instability has hampered the country's economic recovery program as financial markets lost confidence with the coalition partners.
In another blow to the coalition government, Dervis also submitted his resignation Thursday, a move that sent the Turkish lira tumbling to an all-time low of over 1.7 million to the dollar. He later withdrew his resignation, apparently to avoid a further economic collapse.
It appeared Friday he would keep his job even after joining the new party.
Gurel, who is also deputy prime minister, said Friday the government would maintain its economic recovery program at any cost and chided Dervis for his brief resignation.
Both of Ecevit's partners in the three-party coalition government have called for early elections in either September or November. The nationalist wing has already collected enough signatures to recall parliament in September to vote on early elections for November. The nationalists are strongly opposed to EU reforms.