Turkey, Life

PROFILE - Necmettin Erbakan: Political and engineering genius

Erbakan inspired many statesmen with his political viewpoint anchored in ethics and spirituality

Gozde Bayar   | 27.02.2020
PROFILE - Necmettin Erbakan: Political and engineering genius


Nine years have passed since the death of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the founding leader of the National Vision (Milli Gorus) movement, whose political wisdom and struggle have profoundly shaped Turkey’s political landscape in the 21st century.

Erbakan's "National Vision Movement" ideology brought new excitement to Turkish politics in the 1990s as he was widely considered the "hodja," or Muslim scholar, laying down the roots of Turkey’s current ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party.

Anchoring his political viewpoint in ethics and spirituality, Erbakan led the way for many statesmen and civil servants that followed, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Throughout his political life, Erbakan made great efforts to unite all Muslims, including political, technological, cultural and monetary union.

Erbakan’s efforts have played an important role in a political awakening in the Islamic world by establishing the conservative concept of a National Vision outside the conventional politics of left and right.

He was born in Sinop, a small city on the Black Sea coast in northern Turkey, in 1926 and spent his childhood in various cities including Kayseri and Trabzon due to his father's work. His father was a criminal court judge and he traveled with him across Turkey.

After finishing high school at Istanbul’s prestigious Erkek Lisesi (Boys School), he passed the exam to join Istanbul Technical University's mechanical engineering department.

His high scores on the national university entrance exam helped him skip the first year and start directly from the second.

Upon graduating, he continued as an academic at the same university and, marking one of the milestones in his career, in 1951 was sent to Aachen University in Germany for further studies.

As an engineer, Erbakan attracted the attention of Germany’s Economy Ministry after submitting three theses, one at the Ph.D. level.

Erbakan prepared his thesis to become an associate professor on the subject of the mathematics of fuel ignition by diesel engines.

He later worked as chief engineer at Germany's largest engine plant, the manufacturer of the famous Leopard tanks.

Launches heavy industry in Turkey

Erbakan, who witnessed developments in Germany on heavy industry, prioritized investment in heavy industry in Turkey.

He identified a heavy industry initiative as one of the important goals of his National Vision at a time when many of his opponents claimed that Turkey was incapable of even producing peaches, let alone engines.

In 1956, after returning to Turkey, he founded Istanbul’s Gumus Engine Factory with a handful of like-minded, dedicated people.

In March 1960, the factory, which later changed its name to Pancar Motor, started mass production.

However, no good deed goes unpunished, and the foreign firms that dominated the sector applied economic and political pressure to drive the factory out of business. It finally closed its doors in 2012.

Erbakan entered the Istanbul Chamber of Industry in 1959, in search of not falling behind competition, he went on to contribute to the industrial development at the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB).

Erbakan was named the Secretary-General of TOBB in 1967, marrying Nermin Saatcioglu the same year. The couple had three children: Elif and Muhammad Fatih.

Political journey

Erbakan’s political career started in 1969. He applied to become a member of parliament for the Justice Party but it was rejected. Then he entered the elections from Konya as an independent candidate.

He won a seat in parliament’s lower house -- in the bicameral Turkish parliament of the time.

During his journey as a hard-working MP, he told reporters: "A single flower does not make a spring, but every spring starts with one."

In 1970, Erbakan founded the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi) with 17 colleagues, paving the way for the institutionalization of his National Vision movement.

Under his new party, Erbakan conducted a policy of opposing both Westernism and capitalism.

The battle against Zionism was also at the forefront of his fight. Under Erbakan's guidance, Turkish politicians and the nation developed a deeper sensitivity to the Palestinian cause.

Above all, he was the first Turkish leader to urge Turks to pray in Hagia Sophia, the landmark mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul.
His ideas attracted the attention of many circles and also raised eyebrows.

Following the disbandment of his party in 1971 on charges of harboring an anti-secular agenda, Erbakan founded the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi).

In 1973, the party won 48 seats in the lower house and three in the Senate.

As deputy prime minister through most of 1974, he defended the military operation to Cyprus to protect the Turkish Cypriots therefrom ethnic violence. In recognition of this, his followers started calling him "Mujahid Erbakan" or “Fighter Erbakan.”

Bans and two coups

Erbakan formed three coalitions in seven years until the Sept. 12, 1980, military coup.

After the coup, Erbakan and his political movement found themselves targeted, and he was arrested and spent nine months in prison.

He and his party members were charged with anti-secularism turning the party into an illegal community in October 1980.

They were released in July 1981 and acquitted of all charges two years later.

Unbowed, immediately after his release, Erbakan initiated efforts to establish a new party.

However, he and some of his close friends were prohibited from politics like other party leaders, including Bulent Ecevit, Suleyman Demirel, and Alparslan Turkes.

When Erbakan’s political ban was finally lifted in 1987, he became chairman of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), whose foundation in 1983 he spearheaded.

Welfare enjoyed tremendous electoral success, especially in Turkey’s local elections, including the commercial capital Istanbul and the capital Ankara, who combined makeup over one-fifth of Turkey’s population.

This success also provided an opportunity to introduce Erbakan's National Vision to the entire country.

In the 1995 general elections, Welfare was the top party, securing 21.7% of the vote.

However, then-President Suleyman Demirel did not give Erbakan the deserved right to form a government, giving that right instead of to a coalition government that lasted a mere three months.

In 1996, he finally got a chance to form a government with the True Path Party (DYP) and became prime minister of Turkey. As premier, in 1997, Erbakan proposed the creation of an economic group consisting of eight emerging economies from the Muslim world.

On June 15, 1997, the Developing-8 or D-8 bloc was launched. Alongside Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, and Pakistan founded the organization based in Istanbul.

By all measures, Erbakan's government was yielding stellar results and improving the quality of life of both the middle class and the underprivileged.

But his opposition to Turkey’s elite establishment came with consequences.

After months of propaganda against Erbakan and the demonization of his movement in the mainstream media, on Feb. 28, 1997, a military coup ended his barely year-long rule in order to "restore the secular character of the regime."

As the government was toppled by pressure rather than bloodshed, it was called a “post-modern coup,” but the result was a little different.

Following the coup, Vural Savas, a pro-coup prosecutor, lost no time targeting the closure of Erbakan’s Welfare Party.

In 1998, the party was closed and Erbakan and five of his associates were banned from politics for five years.

At the time, Erbakan told reporters these moves would only grow his movement in the hearts of the people.

Later years

In December 1997, seeking to pre-empt efforts to kill Erbakan’s movement, his colleagues founded the Virtue (Fazilet) Party, political party No. 4 of the National Vision movement.

Erbakan's longtime friend Recai Kutan took the party helm, but the knives of the secular establishment were already out.

Sabih Kanadoglu, the chief prosecutor appointed by fiercely-secular then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, closed the Virtue Party in 2001.

The political duel continued with the formation of the Felicity (Saadet) Party only a month later, when Erbakan famously said: "Those who stole our horse did not steal our track."

In the early elections of November 2002, the Justice and Development (AK) Party, founded by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other former heavyweights of the National Vision movement, became Turkey’s ruling party, a position it holds to this day.

In those elections, the Felicity Party won no seats, as it failed to meet Turkey’s 10% threshold.

In May 2003, following the lifting of his five-year ban, Erbakan was elected chairman of the Felicity Party.

On Feb. 27, 2011, just short of the anniversary of the Feb. 28, 1997, post-modern coup, Erbakan died due to respiratory failure, heart, and multiple organ failure.

Per his will, instead of a state funeral, Erbakan was buried after services at Fatih Mosque in Istanbul.

Millions attended his funeral and paid their respects to "Mujahid Erbakan."

Speaking of his political forerunner Erbakan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- then prime minister, now president -- said: “He set a good example for the young generations as a leader, as a teacher, with his struggle, with his devotion to his cause, and with his principles. May he rest in peace.”

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