Friday, 22 May 2009

Süleyman Demirel's Odyssey From Conservatism to Secularism

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 10 of the Turkey Analyst)

Süleyman Demirel, the grand old man of Turkish politics, aspires to revive the defunct center right which used to rule Turkey, creating an alternative to the AKP. However, Demirel no longer appeals to the conservative majority that composed the constituency of the center right. Indeed, he is accused of having betrayed the historical mission of Turkish conservatism by allying himself with the nationalist-secularist military-bureaucratic establishment. Demirel’s evolution in fact personifies the radicalization of republican state ideology.

BACKGROUND: Last week, Hüsamettin Cindoruk was elected party chairman of the Democratic Party. The DP is a remnant of what was once Turkey’s dominant political movement. The center-right ruled Turkey for most of the time between 1950 and 2002. The other inheritor of that political tradition is the likewise nowadays politically insignificant Motherland party. In the general elections 2007, the DP received 3.5 percent of the votes. Nevertheless, the change in the DP leadership is worth more attention than what it would seem to warrant at first glance. Indeed, the significance of the event was not lost on commentators who support the ruling AKP.

Cindoruk’s election was widely interpreted as an intervention by former president and long-time prime minister Süleyman Demirel. “What has happened is important because it means that Demirel has returned to party politics”, wrote Taha Akyol, a prominent conservative, pro-AKP columnist.

Süleyman Demirel was prime minister for twelve years during the 1960s and 1970s and at the beginning of the 1990s, and served as president from 1993 to 2000. Cindoruk is known to be a loyal executor of missions assigned to him by Demirel. Cindoruk was quick to pay tribute to Demirel upon his election, welcoming him to the party and thereupon visiting him at his home. Greeting Cindoruk, Demirel declared that he had found it impossible to accept that the fifty-year old center-right movement would go extinct.

However, Demirel’s aspiration to represent the center-right is far from being universally welcomed within what is left of that movement. Indeed, Cindoruk’s election was not unanimous, revealing that the DP is a sharply divided party. Not having rallied his own party fully behind him, Cindoruk (and Demirel) will face great difficulties when embarking on the proclaimed effort to unite the DP and the Motherland party. Indeed, the new party leader suffered an immediate, symbolically important setback when Aydin Menderes, the son of Adnan Menderes, the conservative prime minister that was deposed in a military coup 1960 and hanged, resigned from the DP in protest. “The DP is going to provide logistical support for Ergenekon (the secularist-nationalist coup conspiracy)”, Menderes stated.

On several occasions, Demirel has made a point of displaying his solidarity with some of the prominent detainees in the Ergenekon investigation, for example showing up at the airport when the rector of an Ankara university was dispatched to imprisonment. At the age of 85, Demirel has taken on the role as the unofficial leader of the secularist opposition. When a journalist of the secularist daily Cumhuriyet was imprisoned, it was Demirel who consoled the publisher of the daily, assuring him that “These difficult days will pass.”

IMPLICATIONS: Demirel’s pro-secularist interventions have not endeared him to those who used to support him when his political profile was distinctly conservative. Tellingly, Cindoruk’s election as DP leader was welcomed not by liberals and conservatives, who normally should have taken a favorable view of the attempt to revive the center-right, but by secularist social democratic commentators. Conservative columnist Akyol recalled that Demirel abandoned the historical mission of the center-right already in 1997, when as president he was instrumental in bringing down an Islamist-led coalition government in collusion with the General staff. Liberal columnist Hasan Cemal expressed his disappointment with Demirel, who, he recalled, had supported the efforts in 2007 to bar Abdullah Gül from being elected president. “Democracy is not furthered by militarism and by Ergenekonism”, read the title of Cemal’s article.

Akyol predicts that Demirel and Cindoruk are bound to fail in their attempt to challenge the AKP, as they have become divorced from the democratic core values that he claims have historically distinguished the center-right. Ever since the era of the Democratic party in the 1950s, followed by Demirel’s own Justice party from the 1960s to 1980, and the Motherland party of Turgut Özal, the center-right has been “close to the people”, with mobilizing calls like “enough, it’s now up to the people to decide,” Akyol asserts.  Cemal, on the other hand, recognizes that Turkish conservatism has traditionally been marred by a restricted view of democracy. Although he was deposed by the military twice, Demirel and the center-right was content with keeping within the boundaries set by a regime of military stewardship. The center-right did not bother to defend the democratic rights of those who dissented from its own views, he argues.

Ideologically, the center-right rested on the pillars of free enterprise, social conservatism and nationalism. In neither respect did the movement challenge or collide with the tenets of official state ideology. Indeed, it could be argued that the center-right represented the embodiment of a republican ideology which was characterized precisely by nationalism and anti-leftist conservatism. But crucially, Turkish conservatism wedded statism and populism; although its rhetoric was populist and often pro-Islamic, it sought to strengthen the state, not subvert its supremacy. The promotion of social conservatism served to channel religious feelings; the purpose was to control religion, to harness it in the service of the state.

“The secularists used to criticize me for giving in to religious feelings, but I had to. Otherwise I would not have been able to stop Erbakan (the long-time leader of Turkish political Islam)”, Demirel told the Turkey Analyst last year. (See the June 20, 2008 issue) As prime minister, Demirel initiated the vast expansion of the religious schools, and he did not refrain from playing the religious card. What conservatives celebrated as democratic reforms, the secularist left castigated as concessions to the Islamic “counter-revolution.” Today, where the former see a defection from the true cause of the center-right, the latter welcome a tardy conversion to secularism.

In fact, to speak of a “metamorphosis” of Demirel is misleading.  Demirel’s earlier conservatism and subsequent secularism may appear ideologically irreconcilable. Yet, their application by the same politician at different times nevertheless fits into a historical pattern of state exploitation of ideologies. A typical representative of the modernizing Turkish state elite, Demirel has above all been preoccupied with safeguarding the pre-eminence of the state, and with shoring up the legitimacy of the state elite.

Ever since the Ottoman era, the modernizing state elite has presupposed that religion, notably its orthodox variant, could not be dispensed with as a tool of social harmony and control. What the state elite has jealously guarded has been its prerogative to set the rules. Yet, the basic assumption of Turkish state ideology, that religion could be controlled, has been revealed to be a fallacy: in the end, Demirel did not succeed in defusing the challenge of Islamic conservatism, neither by adopting a religiously conservative rhetoric, nor by subverting political Islam. Indeed, it is now widely recognized that the post-modern coup of 1997 in which Demirel took part paved the way for the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002. It could of course be argued that the intervention of 1997 was instrumental in moderating Islamism, as it brought about a split in the Islamist movement, with the moderates founding the AKP. Yet, from the viewpoint of the old republican elite that ideological “victory” was a pyrrhic victory, as the moderate image of the AKP only eased the way for the take-over of “their” republic by an Islamic conservative elite.

CONCLUSIONS: For decades, the center-right provided popular legitimacy to the authority exercised by the state, by wedding religious populism and statism. It served as an intermediary between the state and the periphery. Today, it has to all intents and purposes become superfluous. As Nihat Ergün, AKP minister of Industry, told this author in an interview some months ago, “Demirel[‘s religious rhetoric and policies] satisfied my father; I aspire to rule the state”. The seven and half years of AKP rule have dissolved the boundaries that used to protect the state from the periphery, with the state to a large extent changing hands in the process.

In the face of that momentous change, Demirel told the Turkey Analyst last year that “We did not find this republic on the street, and we are not going to abandon to it anybody,” adding that “the citizens have to conform to modernity, they have to be modern!” Yet two decades ago, Demirel had decried the secularist rigidity of the early years of the republic, and built his political career on representing conservatism. His radicalization is a measure of how much attitudes among the members of the old republican elite have hardened, as well as among Turkey’s secular population in general.

Once, the rural masses were Demirel’s constituency. Today, Demirel puts his hopes on the urban Westernized secularists, who are to be found at the center left rather than at the center right. “It is those who gather at the republican rallies that will supply the popular base (of the roll-back of Islamic conservatism)”, Demirel told the Turkey Analyst last May.

There is an evocative symbolism in Demirel’s shift of constituency, from the conservative majority to the secularist minority. After having attempted to secure the power of the state by mobilizing religion and the conservative majority – the tactic from the 1950s to the 1990s – the old republican elite, now under siege, seeks redemption in a secularism reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s. Turkish republican ideology has come full circle.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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