A Man for All Seasons

Ismail Cem

Ismail Cem
Ismail Cem at the European Union and Organization of Islamic States Conference Joint Forum in Istanbul, Feb. 13, 2002 (AFP Photo/Kerim Okten).

Turkey’s foreign minister until this past July, Ismail Cem has always blazed his own trail, whether as a politician or journalist.

Born Ismail Cem Ipekci, he dropped his last name years ago when he entered the news profession, seeking to eliminate any suggestion of favoritism because of his famous relative, Abdi Ipekci,editor of the progressive daily Milliyet. Now Cem has made perhaps the biggest splash of his public life, breaking with the faltering Democratic Left Party and creating New Turkey, another pro-Western, left-center movement.

Cem’s departure and those of other ministers all but spell the end of the government of ailing Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. Parliamentary elections have been set for Nov. 3. Cem’s party is seen by Turkey’s media as the only centrist, secular movement that can viably compete against nationalist and religious parties. If New Turkey outpolls the front-running Justice and Development Party, Cem has a shot at becoming the next prime minister.

During the past five years, Cem (pronounced “gem”) has burnished his country’s image abroad. Soon after taking office, he traveled the globe, attempting to project a profile of Turkey as a stable partner. One of his greatest successes was a rapprochement with Greece, accomplished thanks to a mutual outpouring of sympathy after earthquakes in both Aegean countries.

Though pro-Western, Cem has spoken out firmly in defense of Turkey’s national interests. In an interview several years ago with the French magazine l’Express, he articulately fielded some tough questions regarding the rights of the Kurdish minority. On the one hand, he asserted that Kurds are free to use their language and engage in cultural activities. On the other hand, he cited European law that permits limitations on free speech to safeguard a state’s integrity. More recently, as the leader of New Turkey, Cem has been more accommodating, advocating increased rights for Kurds and other steps to boost relations with the West.

Cem entered politics after spending his early years in journalism. In the past two decades, he has moved back and forth between the two professions. He began as a reporter at Milliyet in 1963 and quickly worked his way up to managing editor of Cumhuriyet. Back in 1974, Ecevit, in his first term as prime minister, appointed Cem director of Turkish broadcasting. Ecevit, himself a former journalist, was said to be impressed by Cem’s objectivity.