Çiller, Tansu (1946–)

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Çiller, Tansu (1946–)

Prime minister of Turkey. Name variations: Ciller. Pronunciation: (CHILL-air). Born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1946; attended American College for Girls, Istanbul; graduated from Robert College, 1967, with a degree in economics; graduated University of New Hampshire, master's degree in economics; graduated University of Connecticut, doctorate in economics; attended Yale University, post-doctoral studies, 1971; married banker and businessman Ozer Çiller (who took his wife's surname at the behest of her father, who did not have a son), in 1963; children: two sons.

Tansu Çiller, a United States-trained economist and former university professor, became the first woman prime minister of Turkey on June 14, 1993, following Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh as the third woman to head a predominantly Muslim country. Çiller, a member of the moderate-right True Path Party, is often compared to Margaret Thatcher . To many young Turkish women, she is a symbol of women's ability to achieve professional and political success in a male-dominated society.

Born in Istanbul into a wealthy family, Çiller finished her post-doctoral studies at Yale University in 1971 and stayed in the United States to begin her academic career at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She returned to Turkey in 1974 and quickly worked her way up the academic ladder at her alma mater, Robert College (now Bosporus University). In 1983, at age 36, she was promoted to full professor, the youngest person in Turkey to hold that title. During this time, her husband Ozer amassed a fortune as a successful businessman.

Çiller eased her way into politics during the 1980s, working as a consultant for the World Bank's Chamber of Industry and Trade Board of the State Planning Organization, and as an adviser to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. She gained public notice for a report she prepared for the Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen, in which she was highly critical of the economic policies of President Turgut Özal and the ruling Motherland Party. As a result, she was drafted by Süleyman Demirel, head of the True Path Party, who was looking for ways to broaden support among business leaders and urban intellectuals. After the party's victory in the 1991 election, she was appointed minister of state for the economy and elected a deputy of the General Assembly, where she introduced a controversial plan to privatize many of Turkey's State Economic Enterprises, SEEs (large state-owned monopolies that employ much of the Turkish population but are an inefficient drain on government budgets), through the formation of a professional nonpartisan agency set up to implement reforms. No less controversial was her anti-inflation policy, aimed at lowering interest rates and thus curbing inflation. Her harsh economic plan did not win the support of the governor of the Turkish Central Bank, and public clashes with him, coupled with her growing reputation for being difficult to work with, caused Çiller to fall out of favor with the party leadership.

Upon the sudden death of President Özal in April 1993, Demirel was elected to the presidency, leaving the position of prime minister vacant. Çiller resigned her Cabinet post to run for office, conducting an effective and successful populist campaign, even without party support. To many, her victory as a political outsider reflected the public's desire for reform and change.

As leader of the government, Çiller was beset with problems. She faced renewed hostilities between Turkish government forces and guerrillas affiliated with the Kurdish Worker's Party, which was considered by many—including Çiller—as a terrorist organization from which citizens must be protected. She also

worked to resolve the ethnic conflict between the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians over control of Nagorno-Karabkh, resolving that Turkey would not stand by in the face of Armenian aggression. In February 1994, she joined Benazir Bhutto in Sarajevo (in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia) to draw attention to the plight of Bosnian Muslims and to issue a joint plea for an end to the civil war between the republic's Muslim and Serb populations. Four months later, she sent armed forces to join U.N. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia.

The Turkish economy continued to be among Çiller's top concerns, and several months into office she issued a "White Book" of her administration's accomplishments, which was criticized by detractors as an unconvincing document. In spite of the belief of some that Çiller's promises for sweeping reform and restructuring were empty, she received a vote of confidence from the True Path Party when they reelected her in 1993. However, by 1994, her unorthodox anti-inflation policy was deemed a failure when the credit-rating agencies Moody's and Standard & Poor's downgraded her country's creditworthiness, thus precipitating the devaluation of the Turkish lira. According to a writer for the Economist (February 5, 1994): "What turned things into a crisis was Mrs. Çiller's failure to make the treasury and central bank work in harness."

In spite of gloomy predictions, Çiller's party rallied during the municipal elections in March 1994, winning a plurality of the popular vote. In April 1994, she announced a three-month austerity plan providing for the sale or close of the SEEs; a raise in taxes, especially on the wealthy; a freeze on wages; and the doubling of prices of some staple goods. These measures, the most daring in Turkey's history, were announced to the public with the plea from Çiller for unity among citizens to "disperse the dark clouds hanging over the country." By summer 1994, a recovery of the Turkish economy appeared to be on the horizon.

Çiller remained realistic about the challenges facing her. In 1993, after her first year in office, she said to Maclean's (July 12, 1993), "I am brave, I have no time to lose. Turkey is at a critical point. We are up against a wall. We will either climb over it, or be crushed at the bottom." By 1996, Çiller was no longer prime minister but still the leader of the True Path Party.


Graham, Judith. Current Biography. Vol. 55, no. 9. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts