Süleyman Demirel, in memoriam

Süleyman Demirel, in memoriam

Three days ago, Süleyman Demirel, a guru of Turkish politics, died at the age of 90.  From 1965, when he was first elected as prime minister, to 2000, when he retired as president, he was the towering figure of what was once “the center right.” With his death, those of us who still remember the 20th century better realized that it is now a fully bygone age. 

In Turkey, “center right” always meant respect for tradition (including Islam) and an emphasis on capitalist growth. The Kemalist hated the former idea, the left hated the latter. So, all center-right leaders had their share of hate from the secular left. They also often faced the wrath of the military.

The first hero of the center right was Adnan Menderes, prime minister from 1950 to 1960. He was murdered by a military junta in 1961, following a show trial, making millions of his voters hungry for justice. Hence Süleyman Demirel, a technocrat who worked under Menderes, came to the scene in 1965 with the “Justice Party” and won the election. The next six years were a golden age of economic boom, with highways, dams, irrigation systems and the building of the first bridge over the Bosphorus. 

In 1971, the military took Demirel down. A few years later, he came back thanks to the ballots. After some instable coalitions, he formed another Justice Party government in 1980, but the military took him down again. When he reappeared in the political scene again in late 80’s, with his newly formed “True Path Party,” Demirel was now jokingly saying: “I went away six times, I came back seven times.”

But the 80’s was the era of another center-right leader, Turgut Özal, who, in my view, was a bigger visionary than Demirel. Under Özal Turkey again had a great economic boom, and even some political liberalization. When Özal died untimely in 1993, his former-boss-turned-opponent, Demirel, replaced his seat as president. 

In the next seven years, Demirel departed from his own political heritage and emerged not as a victim but a collaborator of Turkey’s hawkish generals. The “post-modern coup” orchestrated in the late 90’s against the pro-Islamic government of Necmettin Erbakan, and the whole Islamic camp in society, was realized in part with Demirel’s involvement. That is why many conservative Muslims who used to respect Demirel turned bitter against him afterwards. 

Yet looking from today, two caveats must be added to Demirel’s role in that “post-modern coup” of the late 90’s. First, by his cooperation, he perhaps prevented it from turning into a real, and thus more brutal and destructive, coup. Secondly, the secularist witch hunt in that era was really shameful. But apparently it was not an anomaly, but rather a normal product of our national political culture - as we see thanks to the witch hunts of late by our Islamists.

Today what I recall most fondly about Demirel was his tone - his witty, smart and gentle tone. He never intimidated or humiliated people. He never yelled or swore. His punches at his opponents were jokes and puns, rather than rude remarks and insults. When that is compared to some other political leaders that have dominated our political life lately, it is a great feature to appreciate and miss.

Like most of us mortals, Demirel was far from being a perfect man. But I believe he should go down in history as a leader who served his nation as best he could and made the mistakes that most of his enemies also did or would have done. May he rest in peace.