Former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, whose coalition government was forced to step down by the military on Feb. 28, 1997, died at the age of 85 from cardiac and respiratory failure on Sunday at an Ankara hospital, where he had been a patient since early January.
The legendary leader of the National View (Milli Görüş) political movement, Erbakan was re-elected as the head of the Felicity Party (SP) after some troubles within the party last year. After the 1997 coup d'état, his ruling Welfare Party (RP) was banned by the courts and Erbakan was barred from active politics for a temporary period of time.
The Feb. 28, 1997 event was the fourth military intervention in politics in Turkey, preceded by the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980. Not only were fatal blows dealt many fundamental rights and freedoms after Feb. 29 but democracy and the rule of law were suspended. The coup introduced a series of harsh restrictions on religious freedoms, with an unofficial but widely practiced ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf. The military was purged of personnel with suspected ties to religious groups, a tradition that is still widely observed today. In addition, a number of newspapers were closed.
Despite being under a political ban, Erbakan acted as a mentor and informal advisor to former RP members who founded the Virtue Party (FP) in 1997. However, the FP was ruled to be unconstitutional in 2001 and banned. By that time Erbakan's ban on political activities had ended and he went on to establish the SP, of which he was the leader in 2003-2004 and again from late 2010.
A mechanical engineer by profession, Erbakan entered politics in 1969. Since then, he was an important political figure who influenced Turkish politics. He was often referred to as the “number-one victim” of the Feb. 28 coup, but was also harshly criticized for not defending democracy and the rule of law during the coup period. For years, he was accused of leaving his post too easily when the military forced him to resign.
The timing of Erbakan’s death has added another to the painful memories of the Feb. 28 period, which Turkey is set to observe the 14th anniversary today. On the 14th anniversary, there are growing calls on pro-coup factions to end their anti-democratic endeavors targeting the civilian authority and the rule of law.
In early 1997, the General Staff sought ways to get rid of the conservative government led by Erbakan. The National Security Council (MGK) made several decisions during a meeting on Feb. 28 and presented them to Erbakan for approval. Erbakan was forced to sign the decisions, and he subsequently resigned.
None of the military figures who had a hand in overthrowing the RP government has, however, stood trial.
Erbakan was referred to as the “teacher” of several of Turkey’s leading political figures, including President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, Turkey Party (TP) leader Abdüllatif Şener and former Prime Minister Recai Kutan.
Erbakan was sentenced to two years, four months behind bars in a lawsuit known as the “lost trillion” case, but was able to defer serving his sentence by submitting medical reports to the court. The lost trillion case concerns the disappearance of more than TL 1 trillion the Treasury granted to the RP. In 2008, President Gül pardoned Erbakan.
Erbakan will be laid to rest on March 1 after funeral prayers at İstanbul’s Fatih Mosque. A statement from the SP read that the party is not planning a big ceremony for its leader. “Our leader did not want an official ceremony after his death,” the statement read.
Messages of condolences from politicians
Erbakan’s death was met with sorrow by leading figures in Turkish politics, who released messages offering their condolences to the Erbakan family as well the entire Turkish nation.
President Gül reportedly phoned Erbakan’s son, Fatih Erbakan, to extend his condolences. The president reportedly told Fatih Erbakan that he was very sad to learn that Turkey had lost one of its greatest politicians and man of science.
Prime Minister Erdoğan expressed sadness over the death of Erbakan, and said God will reward the experienced politician for his service to Turkey. “Erbakan was a politician and man of science who gave much to Turkey and he had an esteemed place in the Turkish politics. He spent his entire life to learning and teaching. May God welcome him in heaven. May God rest his soul,” he noted. The prime minister has reportedly decided to cancel his plans to travel to Brussels so that he can attend Erbakan’s funeral.
Justice and Development Party (AK Party) parliamentary group deputy chairman Suat Kılıç said his party was saddened to learn about the Erbakan’s death. “The people of Anatolia will remember Erbakan in their prayers. May his soul rest in peace. I offer my condolences to his family as well as the National View community,” he stated.
State Minister Faruk Nafiz Özak said Turkey will remember Erbakan as a gentleman who gave much to Turkish politics. Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Çiçek also released a message, in which he extended his condolences to Erbakan’s family and followers.
The Voice of the People Party (HAS Party) leader Numan Kurtulmuş, who led the SP before being replaced by Erbakan in 2010, extended his condolences in a Twitter message on Sunday. “We ask God to treat Erbakan, who left his mark on the last half-century of the Turkish politics, with mercy. I extend my condolences to the entire Turkish nation. Our country will remember Erbakan with gratitude.” In his message, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu defined Erbakan as an “esteemed politician” in Turkey and extended his condolences to Erbakan’s family and relatives.
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş also released a message in which he said: “May he rest in peace. I offer my condolences to his family and relatives.”
According to Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek, who expressed sorrow over Erbakan’s death, the experienced politician had spent much energy mentoring him. Gökçek worked for many years with Erbakan. Gökçek was initially elected as the Ankara mayor 1994 when he was with Erbakan’s RP.
Speaking to reporters, Religious Affairs Directorate President Mehmet Görmez said: “I am saddened to learn the death of SP leader and former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. I pray God to treats Erbakan with mercy, and extend my condolences to his family and followers.”