Tansu Penbe Çiller, Her Excellency Prof. Dr. (May 24, 1946 - ) was Turkey's first female Prime Minister, from 1993 to 1995, and the third woman leader of a Muslim country, following Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's PM (first elected 1988) and Bangladesh's Khaleda Zia (first elected 1991). She was the 31st woman to serve as a head of government during the twentieth century. After gaining her doctorate from the University of Connecticut, she was a professor at Bosphorus University and a partner in business with her husband. Entering parliament in 1991 as a True Path Party candidate, she was appointed minister responsible for the economy. When the True Path Party leader and Prime Minister became President in 1993, she defeated several male candidates for the Party chair, becoming Prime Minister in coalition with the Social Democratic Popularist Party. Disagreement between the two parties and corruption charges resulted in her resignation in 1996, followed by a new coalition between the TPP and the Motherland Party with Mesut Yilmaz, its leader as PM and Çiller as Foreign Minister pursuing Turkey's application to join the European Union. This coalition collapsed in mid-1996. A new coalition with the Welfare Party began in June with its leader, Necmettin Erkbaden as Prime Minister and Çiller as Deputy. Erkbaden was forced to resign, by the military, in 1997. After the next election, Çiller continued as leader of the TPP in opposition to the government. She retired from politics after losing the 2002 general election.
Çiller has been accused of corruption during her time in office although the courts have cleared her or confirmed her immunity from prosecution. Her tenure in office was marked by opposition to the Kurdistan Workers Party, defense of secularism, democracy, and human rights, by effort to control inflation (then 70 percent) and to increase employment. A pro-European, she oversaw the EU-Turkey Customs Union and the modernization of the Turkish army and continued to advocate membership of the EU. Comparison with Margaret Thatcher, whom she admires, earned her the title Turkey's "iron lady." Corruption scandal colors her legacy. However, charges of corruption are endemic in Turkish politics. Thee is corruption but accusations are also used to discredit and to sow seeds of suspicion. As the second elected head of government of a Muslim state and as a woman who balanced family responsibility with a career and public service, she has set an example for other women to follow. It has been suggested that as a role-model, her example is more powerful because she was unrelated to a previous leader, unlike other Muslim women who have led their states. Subsequent to her term in office, reforms in Turkish law have removed almost all gender-biased legislation.
Çiller was born in Istanbul. Her father was a retired government official. She attended the American Girls School followed by Robert College (subsequently renamed Bosphorus University, graduating with a BA in economics. She then gained her MA from the University of New Hampshire followed by her Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut. She pursued post-doctoral work at Yale University. In 1970, she became a United States citizen. Before returning to Turkey, she taught for a year at Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania.
She had married Özer in 1963, who adopted her family name, Çiller. The couple went back to Turkey, in 1973, when Özer received "an attractive job offer from a large company in Turkey." Ciller herself became an assistant professor of economics at her alma mater. In 1978, she was promoted to associate professor and, in 1983, to full professor. Her research focused on Turkey's economic problems. She wrote a series of papers for the Turkish Association of Businessmen and Industrialists, and formed close links with the business community. She and her husband began to buy and sell property (in the U.S. as well as in Turkey) and acquired the "7-Eleven" concession for Turkey. Istanbul Bankasi, a bank of which Mr. Çiller was managing director, went bankrupt in 1983, due to Turkey's economic crises at the time. Some controversy swirls around this incident, related to loans made by the Bank to several companies which the Çillers owned.
After the military coup of 1980, which intended to clean up government, only people who were considered untainted were permitted to enter politics. This attracted new political parties and a fresh generation of politicians. In 1983, the newly founded Motherland Party was swept into power under its leader, Turgut Özal. He was re-elected in 1987. In 1989, he became President of Turkey. By this time, Çiller although still outside politics was already a well known figure due to her outspoken criticism of Özal's economic policies. Inflation was rampant. When Süleyman Demirel of the True Path Party (formed in 1983, as a successor to the Justice Party) was allowed to re-enter parties (he had been banned in 1980, when the Justice Party had been suppressed) he appointed Çiller as an economic adviser. Demirel has served as Prime Minister between 1965 and 1971, and for a second term between 1975 and 1977, leading the Justice Party. By 1990, she had joined the Party and when she stood for election in October 1991, she won her Istanbul seat, joining what emerged as a TPP led government. She was also elected Vice-President of the Party. The party won 178 seats out of 550 seats. Although the largest single partner, it could not form a government without the support of another party and so entered a partnership with the Social Democratic Popularist Party (which later merged with the Republican Peoples Party). Demirel became Prime Minister. Çiller who had drawn up the party's economic program, was rewarded with the Economics Ministry. Relatively few politicians enter the Cabinet after their first election to parliament. Aiming to reduce inflation, Çiller set out to broaden the tax base and to attract more foreign investment. Her fluency in German as well as English was an asset as she traveled widely encouraging overseas finance. On May 16, 1993, Demirel was elected Turkey's 9th President, leaving both the Party leadership and the post of Prime Minister open.
On June 13, 1993, Çiller defeated several male candidates to became the party's leader. Erdal Inönü of the SDPP was acting PM for several months until June 25, when Çiller became Turkey's 25th Prime Minister and her first female head of government. Pursuing Turkey's application to join the European Union was a priority of her government. She oversaw the signing of the EU-Turkey Customs Union agreement in 1995. However, her strategy for controlling inflation had little success. She did oversee the privatization of several state owned companies but in Mid-1994 the stock market crashed, which led to a devaluation of the currency. The issue of Kurdish insurgency continued to raise security issues, while heading up a coalition government presented problems of its own. On the one hand, Çiller is regarded as a champion of human rights; on the other, her government has been accused of a series of human rights abuses including "‘ethnic cleansing’ and systematic attacks on Kurds who form a majority in Turkey’s six south-eastern provinces."
She also modernized the Army, purchasing new equipment from the U.S. She succeeded in persuading both the U.S. and the European Union to list the Kurdistan Peoples Party as a terror organization. In February 1994, she traveled with Benazir Bhutto to Sarajevo to express solidarity with the Muslim community in Bosnia.
The withdrawal of the Republican People's Party from the coalition in 1996 brought down her government. Critics accused Çiller of helping herself to six million USD from a discretionary fund and of using insider knowledge relating to the sale of two state-owned companies. Other accusations involve connivance with "drug gangs, gambling moguls and right-wing hit men to assassinate enemies at home and abroad and sponsor a failed coup attempt in nearby Azerbaijan." Çiller resigned in September 1995. However, when her government won a vote of confidence in October, she was re-instated as acting Prime Minister until a new coalition could be formed. In January 1996, she negotiated a partnership with Mesut Yilmaz of the Motherland Party. He became Prime Minister but on the understanding that if the True Path Party was returned with a large number of deputies in the 1997 general election, she would replace him as PM. Çiller served as Foreign Minister. In June 1997, Yilmaz resigned following accusation about links with organized crime. Çiller then surprised many commentators by forming an alliance with a much more conservative party with Islamist sympathies, the Welfare Party, whose leader, Necmettin Erbaken, became PM with the same agreement regarding Çiller position after the next election. Reinart comments that when she initially entered politics, Çiller said that she was doing so to "prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey" in order to defend "Turkish laicism." Reinart regards the move as indicative of Çiller's willingness to "do anything" to further her personal ambition. Continuing as Foreign Minister, she also became Deputy Prime Minister. In June 1997, he was strongly encouraged by the military (who see themselves as guardians of democracy) to step down; the military feared that Turkey's secular constitution was endangered by the Welfare Party's policies. The Party was banned in 1998.
In the subsequent election, the True Path Party came third and it fell to the Motherland Party to form the next government. Çiller remained a deputy and party leader until the 2002 election. That election resulted in ever fewer deputies for her party. losing 85 seats, including her own. She resigned as Party Leader and also from politics.
She was investigated in the Turkish Parliament on serious corruption accusations following her period in government. Along with Mesut Yılmaz, she was later cleared of all the charges mainly due to technicalities such as statute of limitations and political immunity. The court ruled that there was "no evidence she knowingly misused a secret Government fund." In January 1999, she supported the minority government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. This did not result in a cabinet appointment but it did increase her political influence.
In 2005, following the election of Germany's first female Chancellor, Angela Merkel, she sent a message of good wishes; "I congratulate her and wish her the best. I do hope that as a leader with a vision she will see the future and think of the advantages for her country—which I feel will benefit extremely from the EU membership of Turkey."
Despite the allegations that have been made against her, Çiller has been praised as a role-model for Turkish women and for her progressive vision of Turkey as a secular, liberal European state. Highly educated, fluent in several languages and a successful academic she was also a wife and a mother. In 1992, Libya's leader, "Muammar Qadhafi, called her a model for all Islamic women]]." When she entered politics, she was a relative newcomer and was seen as a breath of fresh air. With a reputation for fashion, she also brought a touch of glamor with her that fitted in well with her own vision of Turkey as a progressive, modern state. She has been described as "dressing in a chic and highly expensive style." She is "reputed to spend $400 a month on pantyhose/tights." She has also been described as a "symbol of modern Turkey." Commenting on the inevitability that the clothes and hair-styles of women politicians will attract media coverage, she has expressed the hope that this will be replaced by interest in their leadership. Çiller career has impacted on the role of women in Turkey, "a series of legal changes" has "virtually ended the remnants of gender discrimination in Turkish laws, making Turkey's legislation more favorable to women than is that of several U.S. states."
Allegations of corruption, however, detract from her achievements. These surround both her time in office and her husband's business dealings. Critics say that the extent of the Çiller wealth is difficult to explain unless corrupt dealings helped along the way. Mr. Çiller has explained the source of their wealth as stemming from an inheritance passed on by his mother-in-law. Reinart lists their U.S. holdings as "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." Reinart stresses the former PM's comparatively modest background:
For Tansu's parents, it was a sacrifice to send their only daughter to Robert College, a private American school in Istanbul. There, Tansu was known for her ambition, admiration of American culture, and for concealing the fact that her parents were less wealthy than the parents of most of the other students.
Another source estimates Çiller's wealth as fifty million USD "by her own admission."
She established a scholarship at Koc University, Istanbul which sends the top 200 students overseas for graduate study.
She will remain for all time the second elected female head of government of a Muslim country. The charges of corruption need to be seen in context of a political environment in which such charges are endemic. Speaking in 2008, Zeynep Göğüş, founder and president of TR Plus Centre for Turkey in Europe—a Brussels-based NGO, stated that Turkey lags far behind other countries "when it comes to the fight against bribery" and that "corruption seriously lowers Turkey’s status before the EU." In political climates where corruption is common place, charges and accusation are also used to discredit politicians, making it difficult to separate allegation from guilt.
She is the subject of a popular thriller, Maskeli leydi: tekmili birden Tansu Çiller (The Masked Lady) by Faruk Bildirici.
Çiller has been awarded honorary doctorates from several universities, including a PhD from Keio University, Japan (1995), Mahdum Kulu State in Turkmenistan (1995) and from the American University at Girne, Cyprus (2001).
She and Özer Çiller have two children. Their oldest child was born in the U.S.
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