Farewell to “the one who knows”
In the middle of a night, all of a sudden, something unavoidable happened. A giant plane tree fell. Seven-time prime minister, ninth president of the country, Sülü the Shepherd, Morrison Süleyman or simply Demirel of Nazmiye Hanım walked to eternity.
The passing away of Süleyman Demirel was probably a prolonged painful one since the 2013 passing away of Nazmiye Hanım. Even before, the advanced stage of her Alzheimer’s disease meant she no longer recognized him and no longer welcomed him to the private third flood of their historic Güniz Sokak residence with “Welcome home, Demirel,” prompting his reply, “Nazmiye, it’s me…”
Demirel entered politics at the rather young age of 40, at a time when the civilian government that appointed him as director general of the Hydraulic Works Department was toppled by a military junta in 1960. The following year, the prime minister, foreign minister and finance minister of the toppled government were hanged after a trial of mockery by a specially created tribunal. There was a great challenge and opportunity as the center-right of the Turkish political spectrum was almost totally debilitated.
The 1960 coup administration, among many horrible undertakings, did some good things as well. One was the press law. One was the new and democratic constitution that Turkish conservatives never, ever liked but the country had never seen a better and more democratic social charter until then.
The country was in turbulence; so was the Turkish military. Politicization of the armed forces produced scores of small groups of coup aspirants and, indeed, in less than two years, the country saw two coup attempts, quelled by use of force, by the Talat Aydemir group. It was ordinary for some generals to write memorandums and warn the government with a probable takeover should their demands not be met. It was under such conditions Demirel entered politics by becoming elected as leader of the Justice Party. He first served as a deputy prime minister, as he was not yet a parliamentarian, and later as a young prime minister. He was the leader of a new party that was nothing but a transformed continuation of the closed down party, while its leaders were hanged by the coup administration.
Still, then and after he was toppled in 1971 and 1980, Demirel never ever spoke against the military, stressing Turkey needed a strong and respectable armed forces for the national and territorial integrity of the country in this troubled neighborhood. In private discussions, when I or anyone else used the word “coup,” he immediately interrupted with “Intervention… I cannot use that ugly word [coup] against our military.” That was, of course, a very strong and democratic message to all coup aspirants. It was also Demirel who categorically ruled out resisting coups with armed forces, saying “Do I have tanks and cannons, thousands of men under arms? We have one army and it is the apple of our eye.”
He was perhaps the most experienced politician in the area of civilian government- military restive relations. Did he ever give up? Never. He always believed in democracy and despite many of his errors and wrong political preferences, he tried his best to remain a democrat, a committed advocate of free press and freedom of speech.
Indeed, in 1997, when tensions started to build between the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan-led two-way coalition government, it was with Demirel’s intervention that a full-fledged coup was prevented. Instead, parliament was left open and with a change in government, Turkey maintained its democratic progress. He was sad with what happened but was quick to console himself and the rest by saying “Did we manage to keep parliament open? We did… We did not fail then, everything will be put in order again.” The great service he did for the preservation of country’s democracy during those difficult days was unfortunately not appreciated enough by some.
He was a devoted democrat, a champion of freedoms, but aware of Turkey’s geopolitical situation, challenges, constant existential threats and categorically against a standoff between civilian government and the country’s military. “Administering the military is an art. A government should not fight its own army,” he always stressed.
For not only for this writer – who never voted for him or his party – Demirel was an elder brother, a wise man or, as we referred to him when he was banned from politics after the 1980 coup, “the one who knows,” who embraced everyone with respect, dignity and brotherhood. Surviving politically on the waves of political polarization was definitely not in his cards.
We will miss him. May he rest in peace.