The legacy of Demirel: Never give up
To hardline old-school leftists of Turkey, Süleyman Demirel will eternally be an enemy. They all saw him as the pioneer of İmam Hatip High Schools, the champion of classical populism. Take one look at social networks like Twitter and Facebook and you will come across hashtags like #wedidnotwellknowhimwell (#iyibilmezdik) both shared by Justice and Development Party (AK Party) followers and leftists. In fact, he was the child of poverty and the symbol of Turkey that had promised equality.
My earliest memories of him go back to my childhood days, the early days of black-and-white television. Late Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit and he were almost a part of our households when I was growing up as a kid. Half of the neighbors liked Demirel, the other half Ecevit.
Demirel shaped politics for more than three decades in this country. One of the legendary stories about him concerns his perception of secularism and religion. Yavuz Donat from daily Sabah told me years ago about the days of Justice Party (Adalet Partisi) conventions in 1970s’ Ankara. “He would literally take one of his city chairmen from morning prayers and another one from a nightclub. He would walk into the convention hall, holding both of their hands. He wanted his base to be representative of the Turkish way of living Islam.”
For our generation, Demirel was the ultimate winner of the Turkish political system. He was a natural in public, an indestructible political machine. He was someone who could not (or would not) challenge the military but managed to be the commander-in-chief in the end. “A shepherd managing his flock,” one would say about him. Yet, his rise from a tiny Anatolian village to a chief engineer then a political leader has shown how the early years of Turkish Republic, despite all its shortcomings, managed to create a bold generation, the greatest generation some might say.
We can question every political move he has made, challenge and maybe hate his easy unsophisticated rhetoric in campaign rallies. His approach towards the left-right fight in the 1970s and his numbness towards the Kurdish quagmire in the 1990s cost this nation dearly. Yet, he seems to have carved an eternal familiar place in the hearts of this nation. His nickname as “godfather” was not earned easily and will not be given to anyone any time soon.
I remember how hard he pushed for the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline. Its negotiations were hard; all the odds were against it. None of the analysts gave it a chance. For Demirel, it was a nice challenge, like building the Bosphorus Bridge or the GAP Project. If he needed to put a mark on the geostrategic politics of the region, this had to be it. He realized that he had locked himself and Turkey too much into local politics and this could be his eternal legacy in the Caucasus. So with Heydar Aliyev and Eduard Shevardnadze, he played the ultimate gamble to put Turkey on the international energy map. And this time, he won.
Demirel’s legacy to the politicians in Turkey remains simple: Learn your voter base. Respect them. Never overlook them. You may be kicked out of the game numerous times. Never give up. Never stop working. After all, yesterday was yesterday. Today is today.