Soon after Kenan Evren, his illegitimate antagonist in politics, Süleyman Demirel, an iconic figure symbolizing the essential nature of ruling Turkey, also left the world stage.
With the departure of these two men, en era has definitely ended in Turkish history.
Demirel was the elected prime minister for more than 10 years, and also served as president for another seven. Today’s Turkey has his marks and fingerprints all over it, for good and bad.
People’s relations with Demirel were ambivalent. So were mine.
The comments pouring out of the Turkish media yesterday reflected these mixed emotions, too. While the “mainstream” pundits were keen on presenting him as the grand old master of politics to the point of flawless conduct (which, of course, is a myth), the others were more focused on his extremely skillful political acrobatics, insensitivity to human rights breaches and dubious relations with the military.
Certainly, Demirel was such a complex character, such a puzzling statesman that nobody was left indifferent to him. As many leaders in the world from his time would easily agree, he was one of those foxy politicians who the Cold War had cast for the world stage, as he showed himself most fit for those clothes. He was a legalist as well as a brilliant pragmatist, who commanded a style, a mannerism that caught everybody’s attention, and many times, lasting respect.
His was an amazing story: A peasant boy, with huge intelligence and ambition, immediately putting his professional skills within the 1950s bureaucracy on display, and at the age of 40, helps raise the traditional centre right of Turkish politics from its ruin, which was caused by the ruthless officers’ coup in 1960.
Demirel was a product of the young Turkish Republic, a discreet admirer of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, its founder: a growth-obsessed modernist, whose deeds for building the national infrastructure are indeed part of the reason Turkey today is a member of the G-20.
Influenced by positivism, he remained loyal to his conservative values, too, constantly keen on the secularist pillar of the republic.
He valued democracy as the best option. Perhaps he, in his wisdom, acknowledged that Turkey’s transformation since 1946, its first pluralist elections would (have to) be a slow-motion process, that it would be “two steps forward-one step back,” that rapid return to democracy after each disruption is equally important as reform.
Complex as he is — sometimes even enigmatic as François Mitterand — he had also an ambivalent and negative side. He remained far too cautious in foreign policy and rejected any pro-active role in the region, loyal to Atatürk’s (and the Turkish Armed Forces’) motto: “Peace at home, peace abroad.”
His relations with the military certainly had the inherited concern of a civilian, elected Turkish politician. Demirel far too often yielded for a managerial role as defined by the Chief of Staff, far too cautious on sensitive national security issues, domestic or international.
He kept his antennas fully on alert, with an eye on the generals, and chose to adopt, rather than lead. The choice of such “division of labor” cost him one full-scale and two half-coups — 1971, 1980 and 1997.
His negative side was his ego, and his main flaw as statesman: Unlike the “father” Karamanlis of Greece, he never seemed keen on helping to create a symmetry between the center right and left, in Turkey, and never realized its lasting value for stability. Demirel was on the front line when the democratically elected Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP) was physically harassed in Parliament in 1966-67 and by legal means blocked off from being elected.
His worst side is to be remembered in the 1990s by the leftists and Kurds, and the devout Muslims in the latter half, as “unforgivable.”
His tenure as president left far too many scars in the nation’s psyche, with burned Kurdish villages, assassinations of intellectuals and Alevi artists, summary executions, “missing persons,” the dirty war in the Southeast, and corruption and instability.
Privately, he was a funny and caring gentleman with an enormous memory: He remembered everybody’s name and background. He loved jokes, and in politics, he was the unmatched master of tautology. Most of the people identified with his folksy, down-to-earth side and will remember him as “baba” (father).