The erstwhile leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (or CHP), Deniz Baykal, was taken to hospital over a blood clot in a major artery going to his brain early on 16 October 2017. Somewhat surprisingly, “President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan [aka the Prez] reportedly visited the hospital” on the same day. Even “meeting Baykal’s son Ataç Baykal and his daughter Aslı Baykal Ataman,” as reported in the Turkish press. Baykal has been in critical condition since, and following three operations is being kept in a medically induced coma. But why did the Prez himself visit the veteran politician, even instructing prominent brain surgeon Uğur Türe to personally look after the patient?!?? In fact, following his 51-day treatment in Turkey, Baykal was flown to Germany where he entered an Emergency Hospital in the vicinity of the Bavarian city of Munich (Unfallklinik Murnau). And, even more amazing, on 2 January 2018, the Prez made a telephone call to talk to the opposition leader and convey his well-wishes. This telephonic interference was even reported on Turkish television. Is there a special link between these two men, between Tayyip Erdoğan and Baykal?!?? A link the general does not seem to know about?!??
Turkey’s political life has been dominated by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan throughout most of the 21st century . . . Before stepping on the national stage in 2003, his political career had been stopped short due to his imprisonment between 26 March and 24 June 1999. By law, this criminal record would have been the end of his public life . . . but as we know, from being Mayor Istanbul (27 March 1994–6 November 1998), Erdoğan went on to found the Justice and Development Party (or AKP, on 14 August 2001) to subsequently lead the country first as Prime Minister (14 March 2003-28 August 2014) and then, as President (28 August 2014-) . . . and over the years, he has been able to radically alter the country and its people in such a way that today’s Turkey hardly resembles the nation state founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923. The link between being a mayor and becoming prime minister and president was formed by one man, Deniz Baykal.
Necmettin Erbakan’s Protégé
Tayyip Erdoğan entered Turkey’s national consciousness with a bang on 27 March 1994, when Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (or RP, erroneously translated as Welfare Party) somewhat unexpectedly made major gains in nationwide regional elections – even sweeping the mayoral seats of Ankara and Istanbul along. Erdoğan, as the Istanbul-born son of parents hailing from Turkey’s Black Sea town of Rize, became the incumbent of the latter as Erbakan’s chosen candidate. The RP was founded in 1983, and Tayyip Erdoğan had been a member of the party’s Istanbul establishment since 1984, when he became the chairman of the Beyoğlu district party organisation and in the following year, even rising to the chairmanship of the RP’s Istanbul provincial department. In order to strengthen his personal ties with the legendary figure of Erbakan, Erdoğan organised a meeting with the Afghani Mujahid and ‘politician’ Gulbuddin Hekmatyar on 30 November 1985. As such, Erbakan had been actively trying to revive the power of Islam in Turkey since 1969 when he penned a manifesto entitled Millî Görüş (or ‘National Vision’). And he subsequently also set up a number of political parties, beginning with the MNP (National Order Party, founded on 26 January 1970) – numerous political vehicles of which the RP (1983-97) was to be the most successful incarnation (even allowing him to become PM in the period 28 June 1996-30 June 1997). Erbakan was known internationally as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hekmatyar, then, had been an important warlord fighting against the Soviets in the 1980s, receiving liberal support from Pakistan, the UK and the United States. In the 1990s he even received the gruesome sobriquet “Butcher of Kabul,” on account of the widespread destruction and the many deaths he caused in Afghanistan’s capital. Ideologically, he is also known ot have been influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyed Qutub in particular. The meeting between these two Islamic champions (in Turkey, Erbakan’s followers used to refer to their leader as Mücahit or Mujahid) organised by Erdoğan was a great success and no doubt raised his standing in the party’s circles as well as the eyes of the RP leader himself. In 1989, Erdoğan unsuccessfully participated in the mayoral contest for the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. But, five years later, upon receiving Erbakan’s approval he ran for the position of metropolitan mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan ran a savvy campaign, managed by Nabi Avcı, who was to serve as Education Minister (2013-6) and Culture Minister (2016-7) in two separate AKP governments, which ensured his victory with a handsome 25.1% share of the vote. In 2003, Deborah Sontag gave this assessment of his stint at the mayoral offices in Istanbul’s Saraçhane district: “[a]s mayor, Erdogan adopted modern management practices and proved singularly adept at delivering services, installing new water lines, cleaning up the streets, planting trees and improving transportation. He opened up City Hall to the people, gave out his e-mail address, established municipal hot lines. He was considered ethical and evenhanded,” as a devout Muslim who made no bones about publicly proclaiming his faith.
The Imam of Istanbul
Though his record might very well appear largely positive in hindsight, Sontag adds that an anonymous “building-trade professional, however, told [her] that the corruption endemic to Istanbul City Hall persisted under Erdogan and that donations of equipment and vehicles were still solicited in exchange for building permits.” After all, politics is a dirty business, but rather than deal with Erdoğan’s failings to keep his personal avarice in check, which is a most deserving topic in is own right, for present purposes it seems more at hand to deal with the then-mayor’s faith. Even though the period we are dealing with is not even 25 years removed, at that stage in Turkey’s history, Tayyip Erdoğan was a “pious man in a country where secularism [wa]s worshiped,” as worded by Sontag. As a result, at the time, many inhabitants of Istanbul were highly upset and visibly worried by the fact that a man hailing from the district of Kasımpaşa and visibly attached to his religion and at the same time, clearly opposed to the modernzing reforms introduced by Atatürk (known as İnkılap, in Turkish) headed the biggest city in the country that was and continues to be the cultural and economic heart of the nation. In fact, about eight months after his electoral victory, Erdoğan made this pronouncement: “I am the Imam of Istanbul” (reported in the daily Hürriyet, on 8 January 1995). Islam has no priesthood, as there is not supposed to be an intermediary between the Creator (or Allah) and his creature (or man). As a result, in Sunni Islam, the honorific Imam is given to prayer leaders of a mosque, a person that is morally outstanding and therefore able to lead the believers in prayer. And by proclaiming himself to be the city’s prayer leader, Erdoğan at that stage attempted to transform his elected post into a quasi-religious office. At that stage, the notion of ‘Turkish Secularism’ was still very much alive, and “proponents of secularism in Turkey” attached a “lot of importance to certain symbolic issues [, such as] the availability of alcoholic beverages . . . as well as the thorny headscarf issue,” to quote an earlier piece of mine that has since been censored on the internet (but now still available here). And on both counts, Tayyip Erdoğan did not disappoint his detractors, for he “banned alcohol from municipal establishments,” but proved unable to expand that ban to either restaurants or bars. Two years into his term, he even made the pronouncement that “[a]lcoholic drinks must be banned” (reported in the daily Hürriyet, 1 May 1996). As for the then-still thorny and volatile headscarf issue (nowadays probably better known by the Arabic term hijab), following his inauguration as mayor, Erdoğan proclaimed that he would make the (Islamic) headscarf fashionable in years to come.
Reading a Poem, Going to Jail & Returning to Politics
In December 1997, the RP leadership dispatched the Mayor of Istanbul to a political rally in the southeastern city of Siirt, the hometown of his wife’s family (known as her memleket, in ordinary Turkish parlance). On that day, Tayyip Erdoğan, as he had done several times previously, recited a quatrain written by Ziya Gokalp (1876-1924), the primary ideologue of Turkish nationalism: “The minarets are our bayonets. The faithful are our soldiers. God is great. God is great.” In 2002, TIME magazine evaluated this so-called “flight of fancy” as tantamount to political suicide. The Atlantic‘s Uri Friedman states that the timing had been off, as Gokalp’s lines spoken by Erdoğan “provoked Turkey’s secular military leaders and civilian elite, who had just forced the country’s first Islamist prime minister from power and who viewed Istanbul’s popular, Islamist-leaning mayor as a threat.” Earlier that year, Turkey’s secular elite had namely belatedly undertaken a serious counter-measure against what they saw as the growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism, at that stage still known in Turkey as İrtica or ‘reactionary atavism’ or simply ‘religious reaction.’ The politcal scientist Şaban Tanıyıcı explains: “[i]n a regular monthly National Security Council (NSC) meeting on 28 February 1997, the military leadership demanded from the leader of the [RP] and prime minister at the time, [Necemetin] Erbakan, that his government implement a number of measures that would prevent [the] Islamization of Turkey. After that meeting, the military elite closely followed the implementation of these decisions and started a campaign that included some societal organizations, the media and the opposition parties, and led to the removal of the government. This process of de-Islamization continued after Erbakan was ousted from power. It became known as the ‘28 February Process’, which included . . [a total] ban on the party [RP] and a total campaign against religious social forces.” And in this climate, reciting Gokalp’s lines during an election rally had been a most imprudent thing to do, it had been nothing but a provocation really.
At that stage in Republican history, the Turkish Penal Code’s Article 312 was notorious and its original wording meant to stifle even the smallest hint of İrtica (or ‘religious reaction’): “Anyone who openly incites the public to hatred and enmity with regard to class, race, religion, religious sect or regional differences shall be punished” by means of a jail term between 1 and 3 years. With regard to the reciting of one of Gokalp’s poems by Istanbul’s Mayor, Human Rights Watch had this to say: “Turkish courts show an eccentric understanding of what constitutes “incitement”. The former mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdogan was stripped of political rights and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for reading lines from a poem that not only contained no advocacy of violence or hatred, but was written by a celebrated republican poet and had actually been approved by the Ministry of Education for use in schools. In fact, in common with some other prosecutions under Article 312, the conviction of Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to be no more than straightforward political manipulation.” On 6 February 2002 a so-called “mini-democracy package” altered the wording of the infamous article. At the time, the country was led by the veteran politician Bülent Ecevit, whose coalition government was supported from the outside by Deniz Baykal’s CHP.
Friedman relates in 2016 that in “1999, thousands of supporters escorted him to jail, where his popularity only grew. Erdogan seemingly emerged from prison a changed man, committed more to Western-style democracy than Islamism.” But his prison sentence meant that he was barred from political office. “Erdoğan’s political career is over,” the Turkish press wrote at the time. Unperturbed, in the summer of 2001, though he set up the AKP as his chosen political vehicle. In those very summer months, as related by the British Dr Haitham Al-Haddad, variously described as ‘Sunni Muslim scholar and television presenter of Palestinian origin,’ in true hadith stye, a “brother that I know, Dr Saleh al-Ayid, wrote the following just a few minutes after Turkey’s electoral authorities announced that Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the general Presidential Turkish Election . . . [namely that he on a visit to Istanbul] “in the summer of the year 1421 AH, 2001 CE“ paid a visit to the “great scholar Mohammed Ameen Siraaj at his home in Istanbul“ – otherwise known as Mehmet Emin Saraç, a graduate of Cairo’s Al-Azhar and known in Turkey as the last Ottoman âlim who has been teaching Islamic sciences since 1958, and who at that time in 2001 was entertaining none other than the ambitious former mayor of Istanbul. In the course of the social call, it is reported that Saraç stated that “[i]t is neither our Ambition nor Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s to succeed in leading a province even if it is the size of Istanbul, instead we are training him to be a successful President, and you will see him soon become the President of Turkey by the will of Allāh.”
Baykal or Turkey’s Von Papen
By the time the next election cycle came along in 2002, the newly-founded AKP literally swept to power, gaining “34.2 percent of the vote, winning 363 of the 550 seats in the Turkish parliament [or TBMM].” All together eighteen parties had participated in the electoral contest on 3 November, but only the AKP and the Republical People’s Party (or CHP) were able to breach the 10% threshold – the latter receiving 19.4%. As a result, the AKP was able to form a government on its own, but given that the party’s founder and leader was banned from political life, the post of Prime Minister went to Abdullah Gül, a close personal friend and ally of Erdoğan’s. Gül had also been active in the RP during the 1990s, even uttering quite shocking words at the time. In the run-up to the December 1995 elections, when he was acting as the RP’s deputy leader, he told the Guardian‘s Jonathan Rugman that “[t]his is the end of the Republican period.“
At this stage, the now-gravely ill Baykal made his intervention. In fact, even before the elections, the CHP leader had been vocal in his support for Tayyip Erdoğan. Both party leaders participated in a televised debate chaired by the well-known journalist Uğur Dündar. And right from the start, Baykal expressed his concern with the situation, saying that the ban imposed on his rival was proof that Turkish democracy had still not matured properly. As a long-time-and-particularly-ineffective chairman of the CHP (2000-10), Baykal’s erstwhile defense of democratic values appears virtuous and brave, albeit utterly counter-productive, in hindsight. According to politician Zülfü Livaneli, Baykal was the one to secure Erdoğan’s return to the poitical fold. About a month and a half following the election, a number of CHP MP’s (Livaneli included) held a meeting at fellow MP Mehmet Sevigen’s Ankara house (19 December 2002). At the meeting Baykal vehemently insisted that “Tayyip Erdoğan will become prime minister!“ In spite of serious objections, Livaneli adds, Baykal persisted, even saying “you will see, [Erdoğan] won’t even last two months.“ In response, Livaneli claims to have stated that “Erdoğan is not just anybody, he is the politician chosen to replace Erbakan by all [religious] brotherhoods [or tarikat, in Turkish] combined; he has America’s. Europe’s support behind him, his programme is to turn Turkey into a moderate Muslim republic. He won’t go in just two months, like you’ve said, quite to the contrary, he will end the political lives of everybody [gahtered] in this room.“ In due time, then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer eventually confirmed the lifting of the ban and approved Erdoğan’s election as MP, an election which enabled him to become PM on 14 March 2003. A few days later, on 17 March, then-CHP Chairman Deniz Baykal, while addressing a crowd in the central Anatolian town of Tokat, apparently proudly declared that “we made Erdoğan PM!“
And now, approximately fourteen and a half years later, Livaneli’s words appear to have come all but true, and, rather than improving Turkish democracy Baykal appears to have been the one who drove the decisive nail into its coffin: Deniz Baykal was “the key figure in steering the course of events toward the disastrous outcome, the person who more than anyone else caused what happened,” as written by the historian Henry Ashby Turner (1932-2008) in 1996. Turner’s words actually deal with the figure of Franz von Papen and his role in securing Adolf Hilter’s rise to power, but seem extraordinarily apt in characterising the part played by Baykal in Tayyip Erdoğan’s ascent to his current lofty spot in his palatial residence in Ankara. And now, this tragic figure appears to hover on death’s threshold, yet his actions have paved the way for the current post-Kemalist reality which will persist into the future . . . And, as reported by the Turkish press, Baykal is expected to make a full recovery in Germany and return to Turkey following a 56-day treatment of physical rehabilitation.