Obituary: Alpaslan Turkes
Wednesday 09 April 1997
Turkes was born in Nicosia in 1917, the son of a Cypriot perfumier. By the time his family moved to Istanbul, in 1932, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire had become second city in a new republic. It was not especially welcoming to the citizens of a British colony; young Alpaslan's British passport meant that he was turned away when he applied for a place at a military school. Once an appeal to a senior officer proved successful, however, Turkes distinguished himself as a hard-working student.
Turkes would probably have made a decent soldier, but political hankerings soon intervened. During the Second World War, he advocated neutral Turkey's entry on the side of Germany. This did not endear him to senior officers, who recalled that supporting the Axis powers in the First World War had nearly cost the Turks their independence. In 1944, Turkes was disciplined along with other right-wingers, although a nine-month prison sentence was later overturned.
Turkes's first spell in jail affected neither his career nor his political convictions. After spells of military training in the United States and Germany, he returned to Turkey, where he became a prominent young officer. In 1960, it was the newly promoted Colonel Turkes who informed compatriots on state radio that the army had seized power from the government of Aydan Menderes. Menderes was executed. Turkes later claimed that he had been uncomfortable with his part in the junta which ruled Turkey after the coup, but the experiment was evidently not entirely disagreeable; in 1962, Turkes and 13 other nationalist officers opposed the transfer of power to civilians. "The Fourteen", as they were known, were retired from the army. Turkes, in an echo of Ottoman practice, was appointed an adviser to the Turkish embassy in New Delhi.
He remained three years in India, all the while developing his political ideology. By the time he returned to Turkey in 1963, he had prepared himself for a formal entry into politics - although not before being briefly arrested, on suspicion of planning another coup. In 1965, he joined the Republican Villager Peoples' Party, a smallish satellite for radical right-wingers and Islamists. His energy and charisma soon won him the party leadership and he entered parliament as MP for Ankara the same year with a nine-point manifesto to sell. In his "Nine Lights" - a deliberate echo of the "Six Principles" of Ataturk - Turkes laid out markers for a fast-growing motherland, whose driving force was patriotism.
In 1969, Turkes's party became the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), its agenda defined by antipathy towards Communism and robust positions on subjects like Cyprus. The MHP's principal characteristics - militarism and pan-Turkism - were reflected in the rather basic symbolism fostered by their leader. The party's emblem was a wolf, in homage to the wolf said to have guided the first Turks from their Central Asia fastness, from where they eventually migrated to Anatolia. Similarly, Turkes styled himself "Basbug", a name given to Central Asian military chieftains, who were rarely subject to democratic checks and balances. This was appropriate. A prison term and party name-changes notwithstanding, Turkes would remain Basbug for the rest of his life.
Already well-known for his extremist turn of phrase, it was during the 1970s that Turkes acquired notoriety. He served as deputy prime minister in two short-lived coalition governments, but it was the political violence towards the end of the decade which thrust his Grey Wolves - as MHP activists came to be known - into the limelight. This violence, which pitted left against right, cost the lives of around 5000 Turks. Much of it was perpetrated by the Grey Wolves.
The unrest also encouraged Turkes's former army colleagues to seize power in 1980. To his dismay, Turkes and his MHP were hit hard hit by the military tribunals set up after the coup, although executions were largely confined to leftists. The MHP was closed, along with other political parties. Turkes himself spent five years in jail, deeply resentful that the armed forces - which shared his fear of Communism - should have betrayed a fellow traveller.
Turkes proved forgiving after his return to active politics in 1987 - his links with the army grew stronger than ever. He was particularly supportive of the military's role in Turkey's troubled south east, where a war is still being waged against Kurdish nationalists. He was scathing of liberals who advocated cultural autonomy for the Kurds.
With his smoothed hair and suits of antiquated cut, Turkes looked more like a diplomat than a rabble rouser. But populist he was, retaining the devotion of an unpredictable and unsavoury section of Turkey's extreme right. More important, in recent years he managed to take this section with him while gradually moderating his message.
Perhaps most satisfying for this impatient revolutionary, however, was the realisation of the dream he had most cherished - freedom for Turks living in Soviet Central Asia. Unfortunately for Turkes, his strictly limited electoral appeal meant that it was left to others to promote economic and cultural relations with the likes of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
Alpaslan Turkes, politician: born Nicosia, Cyprus 25 November, 1917; adviser to Turkish embassy in New Delhi 1960-63; leader, Republican Villagers' People's Party 1965-69; leader, Nationalist Action Party 1969-80; leader, Nationalist Duty Party 1987; leader, Nationalist Action Party 1987-97; married 1940 Muzaffer Hanim (died 1974; four daughters, one son), 1976 Seval Hanim (one daughter, one son); died Ankara, Turkey 4 April 1997.
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