Çoban Sülü: The towering man of Turkish politics passes away

Süleyman Demirel passed away on June 17 at the age of 90. He is recognized not only as a “warrior of democracy” and for his unyielding commitment to democratic politics, but also for having survived two military coups—in 1971 and September 1980. He was imprisoned thereafter, but succeeded in making a comeback to politics to eventually serve between 1993 and 2000 as the ninth President of the Turkish Republic. His professional background in civil engineering was reflected in the importance he attributed to large infrastructure projects; he saw such projects as critical to Turkey’s modernization and development.

Demirel came from the rural Anatolian town of Isparta, and took pride for being known as “Çoban Sülü” (an affectionate nickname that, perhaps rather awkwardly, translates to Shepherd Süleyman). He was also renowned for his remarkable memory span, which led people to comment that he knew the name of every Turkish citizen. Perhaps more than any of his predecessors, he understood the needs of the Anatolian population. According to Demirel, “water” was the strongest weapon in the fight against hunger and poverty that still characterized everyday life across Anatolia in the 1950s and 1960s. This was captured in the remarks he delivered during a recent interview: “When water from dams starts flowing into plains and lowlands, I see how water improves the lives of rural people, I see them raising their crops in greater predictability, then be able to feed themselves, achieve modest prosperity and some experience of joy and happiness.”

He managed the early stages of Turkey’s transformation from a largely agrarian society into an urban one, and put in motion the first set of reforms that developed the country into an industrial and services-oriented economy. Under his leadership in the 1960s, the Turkish economy enjoyed a 6 percent growth-rate, while an unprecedentedly high percentage of the population experienced an increase in their living standards. Electricity and roads reached corners of Turkey that had previously been bereft of such infrastructural comforts. 

Yet, the onset of the 1970s would unleash a series of challenges. The nation became caught in the turmoil of weak governments, economic shortages, and left- and right-wing extremism. The mounting street violence and general instability created conditions that, according to the military establishment, necessitated a coup against Demirel’s government in 1971 and then again in September 1980. At the time, many claimed that Demirel’s inflexibility and relentless political ambitions prevented him from halting Turkey’s slide into chaos. For a large number of people, his name became synonymous with one of the darkest periods in Turkey’s political history. 

Nevertheless, he came to play an increasingly constructive role in Turkey’s painfully slow return to democracy from the late 1980s onwards. For example, as a member of a coalition government in the early 1990s, he tried to address the Kurdish problem in Turkey through politics. In cooperation with his coalition partner Erdal İnönü, Demirel enabled Kurdish politicians from Democracy Party (DEP)—the precursor to Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—to enter into the parliament. However, he once more failed to prevent the security and military establishment from taking charge, as the country drifted into bouts of violence, nationalist clashes and massive violations of human rights. Towards the end of his presidency, his contributions to Turkey’s democratization finally started to bear fruit, culminating in the nation’s candidacy for EU membership in 1999. 

Demirel left an imprint upon foreign policy, too. He was deeply committed to the transatlantic alliance. He was very proud to be the only serving statesmen from the 1975 conference that had seen the adoption of the Helsinki Charter. This charter would govern relations between the West and the Soviet bloc during the Cold War as well as plant the seeds of democratic values into the various states that made up the Soviet bloc. The 1999 OSCE Summit, held in Istanbul under Demirel’s presidency, was also a significant step towards constructing the post-Cold War regional order. Foremost, the summit produced the Charter for European Security, which put in place a comprehensive security model to confront the new risks and challenges that were facing the continent in its new security environment. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union opened a whole new geography for Demirel, and enabled him to play an active role in shaping Turkey’s neighbourhood in the last decade of the previous century. He will be remembered for his relations with two former Soviet leaders, Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia. With them, he contributed to Azerbaijan and Georgia’s consolidation of their independence from Russia and adoption of a Western vocation. He also saw Turkey as an actor that would help the whole Turkic world, from “the Adriatic to the Chinese Wall,” be brought economically, politically, socially and strategically into the Western fold. 

On top of these achievements, he will mostly be remembered for his infamous fedora (a symbol of Westernization during Ataturk’s era), warm voice, and his disarming smile—a smile that helped soften the otherwise confrontational nature of Turkish politics. As Turkey’s democracy goes through tough days, the nation will miss, above all, his wisdom and experience.