Süleyman Demirel's death: The eclipse of an era

ÖZER KHALID
Published 21.06.2015 22:30
Updated 21.06.2015 22:32
The coffin and trademark Fedora hat of Turkey's ninth president and former prime minister, Süleyman Demirel, are pictured during his state funeral at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) in Ankara. (AFP Photo)
The coffin and trademark Fedora hat of Turkey's ninth president and former prime minister, Süleyman Demirel, are pictured during his state funeral at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM) in Ankara. (AFP Photo)

Demirel’s passing, like that of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, slowly but surely heralds the eclipse of an era, with Turkey at a historical crossroads. One in which brazen human rights violations, immutable conservatism tinged with ultra-right-wing thinking find it harder to hold majority political sway

As Turkey verges on the precipice of political uncertainty with a coalition conundrum looming, one of its foremost pragmatist political architects, former President Süleyman Demirel, passed away at the age of 90 on Wednesday, June 17 at 2:05 a.m., as confirmed by Ankara's Özel Güven hospital, with the cause being heart failure and a respiratory tract infection.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: "Demirel will be remembered by our beloved people in times to come for the task he took on, the services he brought about and his political role." The government announced three days of mourning in Demirel's honor. The parallels between Erdoğan and Demirel are uncanny.

Both were conservative pragmatists, rural crowd-appeasing populists and prolific orators with foreign policies that, though initially flirted westward, eventually gravitated to the east. Both deployed astute Islamic symbols to lure the vote bank of a densely populated conservative countryside.

Demirel, who was prime minister several times in the 1960s and 1970s and was twice overthrown by military coups before serving as president from 1993 to 2000, was the über pragmatist of his time, instituting unabashed policy reversals whenever needed.

Contingent upon the mood of the moment, Demirel would be a pro-European progressive or make a staunch critique of diversity.

At different junctures of his political career he tied the knot with liberal democrats, Islamists and far-right fascists, wherever the winds blew best.

Born on Nov. 1, 1924, in Turkey's southwestern village of İslamköy, a stone's throw away from the provincial capital of Isparta, Demirel started off as an engineer by vocation. His rural background and populist flair gave him the nickname "Sülo the Shepherd" owing to his village roots. Demirel came to political prominence after a military coup in 1960, cherry-picked by the military brass yearning to restore a civilian government. In 1965, he rose like a phoenix from the ashes, representing the center-right Justice Party and was elected as prime minister at the tender age of 40, Turkey's youngest ever. Wary of a destiny that beset his predecessor, Adnan Menderes, the former prime minister who had been executed by hanging, Demirel ensured to operate hand-in-glove with Turkey's "men on horseback."

During this era Turkey devolved into a Hobbesian state of nature. The country convulsed as ferocious crime gripped entire cities, political mobs staged beheadings and bombings. Imagine Baghdad, Bosnia, the Brixton riots and Baltimore all rolled into one. Demirel's unruly coalition came unraveled. Wobbly historical coalitions and hung Parliaments, which also haunted British Prime Minister David Cameron only a few weeks back, are now feverishly worrying Turkish parties such as the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Republican People's Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), especially Erdoğan, as a coalition, no matter how unwieldy, seems to be Turkey's foremost option.

Demirel's tenure during the 1960s and '70s presaged deep-seated social transformation in Turkey, evolving it from an agrarian society into an increasingly urban industrial one, prominently raising Turkey's profile. However, Turkey plunged into financial calamity during this period. Ham-fisted debt handling amplified by the surging tide of a global oil prices greased the wheels for hyperinflation and joblessness. When push came to shove, as is often also the case in Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria, the military in Turkey intervened. Successive governments led first by military-supported technocrats and subsequently by Demirel's great rival, Bülent Ecevit, failed to mollify rampantly rising violence.

The military staged another coup in 1980, barring Demirel from government. The lid lifted in 1987, whereby Demirel gave birth to the True Path Party (DYP) and became Turkey's ninth president in 1993. The ongoing economic debacle was reversed by Prime Minister Turgut Özal, a previous Demirel protege, paving the way for Turkey`s financial well-being, the icing on the proverbial cake culminating with Kemal Derviş's economic miracle in the early 2000s.

In 2000 Demirel tried amending the Constitution, much like Erdoğan currently, but failed to tailor the Constitution allowing for his return to power. The latter years of Demirel's political journey were marred by rising Kurdish dissent, escalating into an embittered civil war. Critics say that he approved scorched-earth tactics, including human rights violations, cruelty to prisoners, murdering militants and strong-arming opponents. He was also vehemently opposed to Kurdish demands. The recent June 7 general elections, however, proved that such demands can no longer be muted.

In foreign policy, Demirel toed the military's line. Fervently anti-Soviet, he promoted rapprochement with Washington and Tel Aviv. When the German Bundestag voted in 1992 to cease military help owing to the Kurdish conflict, Demirel chillingly declared: "Today, the opinion of the West no longer interests us." His foreign policy started gravitating eastward thereafter, leading to rapport-building with former Soviet republics.

Induced by the military and Supreme Court, Demirel negotiated a non-violent removal of Erbakan's Islamist Welfare Party in 1997, the reincarnation of which ushered in Erdoğan's AK party in 2002.
Demirel's passing, like that of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl, slowly but surely heralds the eclipse of an era, with Turkey at a historical crossroads. One in which brazen human rights violations, immutable conservatism tinged with ultra-right-wing thinking find it harder to hold majority political sway. Such movements no longer bear broad-based mass appeal as they once did. What we now witness, as the June 7 elections proved, is a nascent trend of a more liberal, accommodating and tolerant Turkey, especially vis-a-vis minorities.

History alone will be the final arbiter of whether or not Erdoğan and the AK Party manage to tactically embrace consensus building and compromise seeking the way Demirel did. Much like "Sülo the Shepherd" Erdoğan and the AK Party must now tailor their policies to suit the du jour circumstances even if it implies tough policy reversals, as Turkey's future success relies on this.

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