Ambition for All Seasons: Tansu Ciller* - GLORIA Center

Ambition for All Seasons: Tansu Ciller* - GLORIA Center

Ambition for All Seasons: Tansu Ciller+

By Ustun Reinart*

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

"She is probably the most

behind a microphone at the Turkish Machiavellian politican Turkey has seen for

Parliament in Ankara, on January 6, 1999. a long time," said Professor Kemal Kirisci, a

"In order to prevent a sabotage of the political scientist at Bosphorus University in

democratic system, we have taken control of Istanbul. "For the sake of her goal she'll do

the situation," she announced. Tansu Ciller, anything. Part and parcel of her

had surprised the country by offering Machiavellianism is that while she has a lot

support for a minority government to be of dirty linen herself, she has dirty linen on

formed by Bulent Ecevit, leader of the other politicians, and does not hesitate to use

Democratic Left Party.


Thus, Turkey's current government

This year, a book entitled Maskeli

was dependent on the same woman who has Lady (The Masked Lady), an impeccably

dominated Turkish politics since 1990. researched self-described "thriller" about

Ecevit may be prime minister but Tansu Ciller written by Faruk Bildirici, a columnist

Ciller can make or break his government. with the daily newspaper Hurriyet, is a

After scandals, blunders, and after her phenomenal best-seller in Turkey. It

political career was apparently in shambles, documents her family background,

Ciller is once more poised to hold the reigns childhood, rise to power, accumulation of

of power.

wealth and changes of political position. The

Tansu Ciller enthralled Turkish "mask" refers to the winning smile on

politicians and voters early in this decade Ciller's face at each public appearance.

and became the darling of Turkey's Western Ciller's unsuccessful bid to have the book

allies. Yet only weeks before her latest stunt, banned has only increased its popularity.

Ciller had narrowly escaped a parliamentary

Tansu Ciller was the daughter of a

inquiry into an enormous fortune she had modest middle class family. Her father had

acquired during her years in political office. unfulfilled political ambitions which he

In the last three years she has been accused invested in her daughter. For Tansu's

of abusing the government's slush fund in parents, it was a sacrifice to send their only

her term as prime minister, and her name daughter to Robert College, a private

has been associated with criminal leaders. American school in Istanbul. There, Tansu

Many journalists and political analysts have was known for her ambition, admiration of

called disastrous her latest stint in American culture, and for concealing the

government as coalition partner of the fact that her parents were less wealthy than

Islamist Refah party.

the parents of most of the other students.

Middle East Review of International Affairs Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1999) 80

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


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


Ambition for All Seasons: Tansu Ciller

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


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."

Middle East Review of International Affairs Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1999)

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


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

Ustun Reinart

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


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

Middle East Review of International Affairs Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1999) 82

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


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


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 . For a

free subscription:

with message: subscribe.

*Ustun Reinart is a writer in Quebec City,

Canada and author of Night Spirits

(University of Manitoba Press, 1997. She is

currently teaching at Middle East Technical

University (METU) in her native Turkey.

Ambition for All Seasons: Tansu Ciller


Middle East Review of International Affairs Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1999)

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