End of an Era

What looks like a new era in Turkish politics was ushered in on April 5, when parliament rejected a constitutional amendment to allow President Suleyman Demirel to seek a second term. The vote mirrored public opinion polls, which indicated a large majority against the reelection of the 76-year-old Demirel, who has been a central figure of Turkish politics for nearly four decades. The decision implied that a changing of the guard is now needed not only for the presidency but for the political elite, composed mostly of men in their 70s.

The country has watched Demirel, who headed seven governments, grow from a young party organizer to the prime minister to the corpulent “Baba” (Father), as he came to be known after 1987. A phoenix-like figure who survived two coups and many defeats, Demirel has left his stamp on every aspect of Turkish politics.

Most papers carried commentary on the day after the vote. Among the harshest was Cengiz Candar’s, in Istanbul’s liberal Sabah, who asserted that parliament had finally “broken an idol” and referred to the president as a “symbol of unprincipledness, intrigue, and cunning.” Candar congratulated all Turks, from Turkey to Uzbekistan, on being rid of the nightmare that reigned over the country for close to half a century.

Ahmet Tasgetiren of the Islamist Yeni Safak advised Demirel to use this opportunity to take stock of his mistakes. The consensus was  that all must respect parliament’ s decision to close the book on a politician who represents a bygone era.

The other prominent play- er from Demirel’s generation, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, had put aside long-time rivalries with the president to work intensely to secure the amendment. His motivation, he said, was “stability,” now a key word for the government and the media. Many commentators objected to his interventions in the parliamentary process.

Columnist Ali Bayramoglu of the leftist Yeni Binyil suggested that Ecevit, prime minister for the fifth time, ignored the will of parliament and “insistently pushed the Demirel formula.” Both Sabah and Yeni Safak columnists argued that Ecevit’s link to Demirel led him to violate the constitution. Even the milder Guneri Civaoglu of Istanbul’s liberal-reformist Milliyet, who praised Demirel, reflected on a poor fit between democratic practices and the means used to promote the amendment, which included threats.

Following the defeat, Ecevit asserted that his coalition remained viable. Observing that Ecevit had attached his political prestige to Demirel, Milliyet’s Hasan Cemal asked, “What will Ecevit do? To what extent will he be able to digest this result?” Cemal also wondered whether the presidency, a largely ceremonial post that Demirel has nevertheless used in powerful ways, would now become a government problem. He warned that if this comes to pass and threatens the coalition, the country will be led astray from its real agenda at a time when it needs both the coalition and the economic and political stability it has barely begun to achieve.

As no party has a clear majority to elect a candidate, the process of choosing a replacement is likely to be contentious and to have lasting implications for both the rulingelite and the country.