Portrait of the week: Turkey's "Santa" speaker stands again

Turkish Parliamentary Speaker İsmail Kahraman unexpectedly rose to prominence after the June 7, 2015 general elections; re-elected after a 13-year break from the assembly, he was immediately propelled to the post of speaker, thanks to closeness and loyalty to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

While away from the assembly, Kahraman worked as a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Disciplinary Committee and was one of Erdoğan’s most trusted advisors. The Yeniçağ newspaper said that immediately after last year’s failed coup, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, speaking of Erdoğan and Kahraman, told a former politician: “He doesn’t listen to anybody anymore. He only listens to Ismail Abi, (Kahraman) and even then, only for two minutes.”

Born in 1940, Kahraman is a veteran of Turkish Islamist groups that began to grow in the 1960s and 1970s, as a backlash against the official secularism of the republic. He was a member of a group that protested against a statue of Lenin at the 1967 opening of the Soviet Union’s contemporary art exhibition in Istanbul and performed Islamic prayers in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia church to protest visiting Pope Paul VI’s worship there.

Kahraman created uproar when he stated in April last year that “the new constitution should not include secular ideology”.

And speaking of Che Guevara, he said: “A picture of a terrorist from South America should not be found on the collars or chests of my high school students!”

Turkish Parliamentary speaker Ismail Kahraman (C) delivers a speech during the first meeting of the parliamentary committee in Ankara on February 4, 2016. / AFP / ADEM ALTAN
Turkish Parliamentary speaker Ismail Kahraman (C) delivers a speech during the first meeting of the parliamentary committee in Ankara on February 4, 2016. / AFP / ADEM ALTAN

Kahraman has come under criticism however due to allegations that family members had links to the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, the man Turkey says masterminded the coup. He has also been not been helped by news reports that he far outstripped even the president when it came to giving gifts.

Such has been his generosity, that Kahraman has been dubbed “Santa Claus” by some in the Turkish press.

According to budget figures, cited by the Birgün newspaper, Kahraman spent more than $700,000 on presents in 2016, giving away items such as religious books, albums commemorating the defeat of the coup and laptops to fellow members of parliament and other beneficiaries of his largesse. Even the president, the next biggest giver of gifts, spent only $360,000, the newspaper said.

But even before reports of Kahraman’s magnanimity appeared, far more damaging were accusations close family members may have had links to Gülen. Some 50,000 people have been arrested and 95,000 public servants sacked or suspended from their jobs under state of emergency powers introduced after the coup.

Turkish Parliamentary Speaker Ismail Kahraman (C), and the members of the Turkish Parliament visit Ataturk's mausoleum, Anitkabir, to attend a ceremony during the 96th National Sovereignty and Children's Day which marks the day of the establishment of the Turkish Parliament in 1920, in capital Ankara, on April 23, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN
Speaker Ismail Kahraman and Turkish Parliament members visit Ataturk's mausoleum, Anitkabir, for the National Sovereignty and Children's Day ceremony, in Ankara, 23 April 2016. AFP/ADEM ALTAN

In September, Oda TV, a website critical of the government, said a son-in-law of a high-ranking government politician had fled the country soon after the July 15 coup. The fugitive had been part-owner of a hospital linked to the Gülen movement, the website said. Days later, it asked: “Could that person be the son-in-law of Ismail Kahraman, the speaker of parliament?”

Opposition members of parliament followed up the story with questions to the prime minister. The ruling AKP said Erdoğan had given Kahraman the choice of whether to step down or stay, but the party set Nov. 20 as the date for electing a new speaker anyway.

Undaunted by the apparent rebuff from his own party, Kahraman has been campaigning vigorously for re-election as speaker. His generous gift-giving may stand him in good stead.