The most interesting minister in Turkey’s new government

The most interesting minister in Turkey’s new government

He has just started as Turkey’s new culture minister, but he has already declared war on foreign media and concert pianists who allow their audiences to drink wine and sit on cushions on the floor.

He is supposed to be in this government for only two months, but he has already voiced his assertive hopes and projects, such as opening the Hagia Sophia as a mosque and uniting the entire Turkic world.

Meet Yalçın Topçu, former chair of the Islamist-nationalist Great Union Party (BBP), which shares similar grassroots both with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Topçu’s rise to a minister’s seat is indicative of the interim government AKP chair Ahmet Davutoğlu was forced to form to take Turkey to a re-election on Nov. 1, after coalition talks collapsed late last month.

According to pro-government media, Davutoğlu’s offer of the culture and tourism minister’s seat was conveyed to Topçu only 15 minutes before the interim government was announced to the public late Aug. 28. 

Taking no offence, Topçu immediately accepted the offer. 

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Administrations after the military coup in 1980 had banned Topçu from working as a teacher due to his political activities before the coup. That’s how he became a professional politician.

Topçu joined MHP founder Alparslan Türkeş in the 1980s (Ironically, the MHP founder’s son, Tuğrul Türkeş, also accepted Davutoğlu’s offer of a cabinet seat and has been expelled from the MHP for breaking party lines).

In 1992, Topçu joined a group of party dissidents who objected to Türkeş’s rather secular, ethnic nationalism. Led by Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu, this group founded a splinter party, the BBP, representing a more cultural nationalist, pan-Islamist line.

After working in different top level jobs at the BBP, Topçu was appointed as the Prime Ministry’s press advisor in 1996, thanks to Yazıcıoğlu. He worked there for 11 years, before returning to the BBP as secretary-general in 2007.

Yazıcıoğlu died in a helicopter crash in 2009 and Topçu was elected as the BBP’s new chair by receiving 507 of 508 votes in an extraordinary party congress. Three years after leaving the top party post, he resigned from the BBP in 2014, claiming his party wrongfully supported the December 2013 corruption investigations targeting AKP figures. 

He slammed public servant followers of the Gülen movement, the AKP’s ally-turned-nemeses, for launching a coup attempt with those investigations. He said the Gülenists wiretapped him as a suspect in an investigation into the İBDA-C, an Islamist organization designated as a terrorist group.

Meanwhile, Topçu also hailed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the government. Many people in Ankara had thought that the AKP would nominate him as a deputy candidate before the June 7 general election, but it did not.

Only when Davutoğlu was obliged to find an “independent” - aka non-partisan - figure according to constitutional rules for the interim government, he turned to Topçu, whom he apparently was sure would accept the offer. 

The pro-AKP media now praises Topçu, heralding that he would adopt a “national, native culture policy.”

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In his first days as Turkey’s culture minister, Topçu has already shown he may be the most interesting government figure.  

First, he told broadcaster A Haber on Aug. 31 that “his heart” wants to see Hagia Sophia as a mosque again, revealing that one of the first documents he signed as Turkey’s new culture minister was to inquire into the legal aspects regarding the possibility of such a conversion.

When Topçu was the BBP chair in July 2009, some 100 members of his party’s youth branches had attacked a classical music concert by renowned Turkish pianist İdil Biret in Istanbul, saying the wine that was served in Topkapı Palace “desecrated” the historical venue.

“If it happened today, I wouldn’t allow a concert with cushions to sit on the ground and wine served,” Topçu told daily Hürriyet last week.

When he met representatives of Turkic states the following day, Topçu said they could together realize his “dream” of uniting the Turkic world “from the Adriatic to the Great Wall" of China.

While stressing he is an independent minister, Topçu speaks in line with each and every policy of the AKP, including in its “war on terror,” and even with veiled calls to people to vote for it on Nov. 1 by highlighting “Turkey’s need for a single-party government.”

But on Sept. 4, he confused the AKP’s name, wrongly suggesting that Davutoğlu leads the “Anavatan Party.” 

In the same week, he had made two more gaffes, failing to recognize the name of a famous dissident actor who was recently fired from the state theater and starting to talk about Libyan history when he was actually asked about the Atatürk Cultural Center in Taksim, Istanbul.

Finally, during his first official trip as minister, Topçu said in his hometown Ardahan on Sept. 5: “Like our grandfathers who fought with bayonets and artillery in Gallipoli, today we are fighting with Der Spiegel, BBC, Reuters and CNN.”

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Right-wing politics in Turkey has always been marred with externalization of the other, xenophobia, conspiracy theories, jingoism and a cadre of politicians whose only qualification is populism.

With their “flexibility” in joining the interim government, BBP figure Yalçın Topçu and MHP figure Tuğrul Türkeş may have given more useful material for political scientists who are trying to understand how the AKP sustains its “alternativeless” position on the right-wing.

This dominant position that maintains itself with a smart reward-and-punishment scheme to woo or penalize right-wing figures could be the main reason for the AKP’s decade-long hegemony.