‘A Supreme Pragmatist’ – Remembering the good old days in Turkey

The end of a legend - Time for the truth?

The end of a legend – Time for the truth?

Suleyman Demirel shuffled off this mortal coil last week. I saw him once in the flesh, so to speak, so I felt some small personal interest in his passing. It was back in 1997 at the opening ceremony of FMV Işık University, one of the early starters in the race for the private university dollar in Turkey. He was short of stature and built like a barrel, reminding me a little of New Zealand’s own Robert D Muldoon, elder statesman of the 1970s and 80s – though I think our Rob was marginally more handsome. At least his dimple was cuter.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know I am no big fan of the New York Times, so you may question why I would voluntarily use it as a source. I guess the main reason is that they published a lengthy obituary in English, and I was looking for a more objective piece to balance the seemingly ubiquitous hagiography I was reading in the Turkish press.

Mr Demirel died at the age of 90, having been at or near the centre of Turkey’s political stage for nearly 40 years, from the early 1960s when he was elected leader of the centre-right Justice party, till the year 2000 when his seven-year term as 9th President of the Republic came to an end. The NYT obituary was interesting, not least because it was published at all; and it wasn’t exactly clear, from information it imparted, why the late lamented actually warranted a thousand words in one of the United States’ premier newspapers. Here are a few snippets:

  • He ‘was the nation’s most remarkable political survivor. Depending on the mood of the moment, he could be a European-oriented progressive or a harsh opponent of diversity. At various times he made common cause with social democrats, Islamists and crypto-fascists of the extreme right.’
  • “He was a supreme pragmatist. He wanted to stay in power,” according to Morton Abramowitz, former US ambassador to Turkey.
  • After a military coup in 1960, Mr. Demirel’s political ambitions were encouraged by armed forces commanders who wanted to turn the government over to civilians, whom they believed they could control.
  • After civilian rule was re-established in the late 1970s, Mr. Demirel served as head of three governments. It was during this period that Turkey fell into an economic crisis.
  • After the military staged its third coup, in 1980, it banned Mr. Demirel and other party leaders from politics.
  • When his [presidential] term expired in 2000, he tried and failed to have the Constitution amended to allow his re-election.
  • “He was always secretive, non-transparent and utterly defensive,” said Yavuz Baydar, a Turkish news commentator.
  • The last years of Mr. Demirel’s career were marked by the emergence of Kurdish nationalism, which developed into civil war. He endorsed the military’s scorched-earth tactics, which included torture of detainees, the assassination of suspected militants and an absolute rejection of Kurdish demands.
  • “Demirel understood the art of Turkish politics better than anyone of his generation,” said Andrew Finkel, an American journalist who interviewed Mr. Demirel many times. “His flaw was that he was unable to put that understanding to good use.”
  • Interviewers often asked Mr. Demirel how he justified jumping with such alacrity from one political position to another. He would reply, “Dün dündür, bugün bugündür,” which means “Yesterday was yesterday, today is today.” It became his best-known slogan.
Was he an 'actor'? And what is the meaning of 'baba' here?

Was he an ‘actor’? And what is the meaning of ‘baba’ here?

When the government of Turkey passed a law in 1934 requiring all citizens to have a surname, it bestowed that of ‘Atatürk’ upon its founder, Mustafa Kemal, born Ali Rızaoğlu Mustafa back in 1881. There were no children to inherit that name, and the constitution prevents anyone else using it, for obvious reasons. It is usually translated into English as ‘Father of the Turks’, though the word ‘ata’ is more commonly rendered ‘ancestor’. We may come closest if we think of it as signifying ‘progenitor of the Turkish nation’ – since Turkish nationalism did not wield much political clout prior to that gentleman’s appearance on the stage of international affairs.

Süleyman Demirel, on the other hand, has been referred to in local articles and obituaries as ‘babamız’. ‘Baba’, in fact, is the normal Turkish word for ‘father’, in the family, biological and legal senses of the word. It also has connotations of spiritual leadership. The tomb of 15th century holy man, Telli Baba, near the Black Sea end of the Bosphorus, is visited by young women looking for assistance in their search for a suitable husband. Then there is ‘mafya babası’. The Muslim religion does not have the Christian concept of ‘godfather’ assisting in the moral upbringing of a child, so the word generally used in Turkish for the Mafia boss is ‘baba’. I can’t say which of these meanings people have in mind when referring to Süleyman Demirel as ‘our baba’ – but I am pretty confident that no one ever seriously considered applying it to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

An important lesson on life and politics

An important lesson on life and politics

I’m not a big fan of that chap Andrew Finkel either, but in his own estimation he knows pretty much everything anyone needs to know about Turkey, so his assessment of Süleyman Baba is particularly interesting. According to the biography on Wikipedia Mr Demirel was Prime Minister of Turkey for a total of ten years and five months, the third longest tenure in the country’s history after İsmet İnönü and Tayyip Erdoğan. With all due respect to İsmet Pasha, all but four of his 17 years in office were served in the days before parliamentary elections were held; and Demirel needed 28 years to reach his mark, and seven separate governments, most of which were fragile coalitions. Erdoğan, on the other hand, achieved his 12 years in the PM’s seat over three consecutive general elections where his party won an absolute majority.

According to Turkey’s Foreign Affairs website, the country had 63 governments in its 80 years until Tayyip Erdoğan took the reins in 2003 – an average of a little over 14 months each, so perhaps in that context Demirel’s record is as good as most. After 2003, Erdoğan led three governments, clearly providing the longest period of stability in the short history of the republic. Now that the electorate, in its collective wisdom, has decided to return to coalition government, time alone will tell if that is a positive or a negative.

But returning to Süleyman Baba – two of his governments were actually cut short by military intervention, in 1971 and 1980. That is also somewhat surprising, since, according to the NYTimes article, it was the 1960 military regime that had picked Demirel out for preferment. The reason given, however, may be a clue: the coup leaders ‘wanted to turn the government over to civilians whom they believed they could control.’

Those well-meaning officers must have felt sadly let down, then, by January 1971 when, according to the Wikipedia article, ‘Turkey appeared to be in a state of chaos. The universities had ceased to function. Students emulating Latin American urban guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped US servicemen, also attacking American targets. The homes of university professors critical of the government were bombed by neo-fascist militants. Factories were on strike and more workdays were lost between 1 January and 12 March 1971 than during any prior year. The Islamist movement had become more aggressive and its party, the National Order Party, openly rejected Atatürk and Kemalism, infuriating the armed forces. Demirel’s government, weakened by defections, seemed paralyzed, powerless to try to curb the campus and street violence and unable to pass any serious legislation on social and financial reform.’

'Women with headscarves should go to Arabia where they belong'

‘Women with headscarves should go to Arabia where they belong’

Nevertheless, in spite of being ousted by the military, Demirel demonstrated his qualities as a ‘remarkable political survivor’ by returning to lead three more short-lived coalition governments from 1975 until the country again descended into chaos and the soldiers stepped in once more, this time slapping on the Turkish phoenix a ban from all political involvement. My local newspaper, ‘Hürriyet’ ran a historical article the other day calling the period after 1980 the country’s blackest days. Perhaps it is too harsh to load all the blame for those black days on to Mr Demirel – but surely he can’t be cleared of all responsibility?

Again, however, rising from the ashes of apparent political humiliation and that military ban, the Baba somehow managed to return to the political stage in 1987, and, in 1991, was able to form one final coalition government with the left-of-centre Social Democrats. Perhaps sensing that he had ridden his luck almost as far as that risky mount would take him, Demirel moved into the largely ceremonial role of President on the sudden death of Turgut Özal in 1993. In those days the President was chosen by the nation’s parliament rather than popular election. His protégé, Tansu Çiller, completed a meteoric rise to (brief) political prominence, taking over as Turkey’s first woman Prime Minister after joining the DYP Party in 1990 and entering parliament in 1991.

Well, pretty much everyone knows there were three military coups in Turkey between 1960 and 1980. A further indirect military intervention, often referred to as the ‘post-modern coup’, is generally acknowledged to have occurred in 1997. More controversial is the assertion in some circles that the year 1993 saw a series of events that were ‘tantamount to a coup’:

  • Assassination of journalist Uğur Mumcu (24 January, car bomb)
  • Assassination of politician and Turgut Özal confidante Adnan Kahveci (5 February, suspicious car accident)
  • Assassination of General Commander of the Turkish Gendarmerie Eşref Bitlis (17 February, allegedly sabotaged plane)
  • Assassination of President Turgut Özal (allegedly by poison, 17 April)
  • May 24, 1993 PKK ambush (24 May)
  • Arson attack on hotel in Van (30 June)
  • Sivas massacre (2 July)
  • Başbağlar massacre (5 July)
  • Van massacre (18 July)
  • Assassination of Kurdish deputy Mehmet Sincar (4 September)
  • Assassination of General Bahtiyar Aydın (22 October)
  • Assassination of former Major Cem Ersever (4 November)

These things are difficult to prove, of course, and one could put them all down to unhappy coincidence. Allegations have frequently surfaced, however, that the American CIA had a hand in the earlier military takeovers in Turkey through its undercover Gladio organisation. Popular leftist Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit was convinced that Operation Gladio was behind terrorist activities in Turkey during the 1970s, including the Taksim Square Massacre on 1 May 1977. Ecevit also claimed that Suleyman Demirel warned him against speaking out on these matters if he didn’t want to find himself on the list of targets. Just a piece of friendly advice? Who can know?

Car crash in Susurluk raises disturbing questions about politics in Turkey

Car crash in Susurluk raises disturbing questions about politics in Turkey

One disturbing event of the 1990s is undoubtedly true. On 3 November 1996 there was a car crash near the town of Susurluk about half way between Istanbul and Izmir. According to a report in Hürriyet Daily News on the Ergnekon court case, ‘On Nov. 3, 1996, a car rear-ended a truck in Susurluk town, which later became the namesake of the infamous case. Mehmet Özbay, Police Chief Huseyin Kocadag and model Gonca Us died in the accident, while Sedat Edip Bucak, a deputy from the center-right True Path Party (DYP), was injured.’

‘It was later noted that Özbay was an alias used by fugitive nationalist militant Abdullah Çatlı, the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant for the deaths of seven left-wing students in the 1970s; a time when intense clashes were ongoing between leftists and rightists that brought the country to the brink of a civil war.

‘Media had interpreted the accident as proof of illicit links between the country’s politicians, police and mafia.

‘The so-called “Susurluk gang” is blamed for many unsolved murders of mafia leaders, businessmen with close ties to the terror organization PKK, as well as other prominent figures during the 1990s.

‘In 2008, Ayhan Çarkin, a police officer who was tried in the Susurluk case and who had worked with Sahin, told in a television program that the gang had killed 4,000 people to protect the interests of the state.’

To what extent was the late Mr Demirel involved in these shenanigans? Who can know? But the words of US Ambassador Abramovitz and the Turkish news commentator Yavuz Baydar quoted by the New York Times suggest that they have their opinions.


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