Former Turkish Prime Minister and President Süleyman Demirel, who was twice toppled by the military only to subsequently return to power, has died at the age of 90.
Turkish authorities declared three days of national mourning over the passing of Demirel, known as “Baba” or “Father,” to his supporters in Turkey’s farming heartland during his years in power.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu expressed “deep sorrow” over Demirel’s death early on June 17, while opposition party leaders from the left and right also expressed their condolences.
Demirel, who served as prime minister seven times through the 1960s to the 1990s and was president from 1993 to 2000, died at Güven Hospital in Ankara where he had been undergoing treatment for a respiratory tract infection.
A ceremony will be held in Ankara on June 19, before he will be laid to rest in Isparta, his hometown, where he was born on Nov. 20, 1924, in a village in which he could have easily been obliged to stay all his life and earn his living through shepherding.
“My becoming a prime minister, and then a president after moving from a village is one of the greatest virtues of the Republic [of Turkey],” Demirel said.
On every convenient occasion, he used to express how he owed a lot to the republic.
Demirel became a civil servant in his youth, going to work at the state’s electrical power planning department in 1949 and undertaking postgraduate studies on irrigation, electrical technologies and dam construction in the United States, in a period that lasted until 1955. He went into politics in 1962.
“I want to give the message to the Turkish youth that if I could succeed, you can succeed, too,” Demirel said in a speech at the opening of the “Democracy and Development Museum” in his home village in October 2014. “This was all possible thanks to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and our republic that he had established. We owe all these things to Atatürk, as well as our democracy struggle to make our republic better for our people.”
For around half a century, a political quartet including Demirel determined the state of affairs in Turkish politics. As such, an era in Turkish politics has effectively ended with Demirel’s passing, with the other members of the quartet, the left-leaning nationalist Bülent Ecevit (1925-2006), the Islamist Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011) and the ultranationalist Alparslan Türkeş (1917-1997), having already departed.
Noting the uniqueness of his political career while also reflecting his strong sense of humor, Demirel once summarized his political career by saying, “I left six times and came back seven times.”
He was first elected prime minister in 1965.
Despite being a doyen of politics, Demirel had many detractors, and the hashtag #KötüBilirdik (We did not know him well) was trending on Twitter on June 17. During the interim regime following the March 12, 1971, “coup memorandum,” Demirel was among the politicians who voted in favor of the death penalty sentence for three young leftist student leaders, Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan, who were executed for attempting to overthrow the constitutional order on May 6, 1972.
Demirel was also implacable on Kurdish rights during the dark days of the mid-1990s, when the war between the Turkish army and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party(PKK) reached its peak, punctuated by unsolved political murders and extrajudicial killings committed by the state.
“Before his death early last year, President Turgut Özal was seeking a political opening to Kurds; and the insurgents, for their part, instituted a unilateral cease-fire. Now the soldiers appear to dominate President Süleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, the first woman to lead a Turkish government,” said a July 1994 article in The New York Times.
Demirel also famously downplayed the gravity of the massacre of Alevis in Sivas in 1993 at the hands of a Sunni mob, supported extrajudicial killings when necessary for “raisons d’état” and dismissed allegations of widespread fascist attacks against Alevis in the run-up to the 1980 coup.
The politician believed that his governments of the 1960s and 1970s deserved much of the credit for a deep transformation of Turkey’s economy and society, which saw a largely agrarian society transformed into an increasingly industrial and urban one, bringing higher living standards for most Turks.
In a remarkable career, Demirel survived his dismissal in two military coups and a ban on holding office to become president. He served as prime minister on repeated occasions in the 1960s and 1970s and then again in the 1990s before serving as head of state from 1993 until 2000.
His attitude, particularly after he was picked as the president, was praised by many for taking a “wise” stance.
He was also known for informing Heydar Aliyev, then the Azerbaijani president, of a coup attempt in 1995. He served as a balancing element between the secularists and Islamists during “the Feb. 28 era,” a period that started with decisions issued by the Turkish military leadership at a National Security Council meeting on Feb. 28, 1997, that initiated the resignation of Prime Minister Erbakan of the Welfare Party, and the end of his coalition government.
Feb. 28 is also dubbed as a “postmodern coup.”
In total, he ruled the modern Turkish state longer than anyone else as premier and prime minister, with the exception of the second president and right hand man of its founder, İsmet İnönü.
Such career prompted one of his opponents, the late composer Fikret Kızılok, to write a song titled “Süleyman Always The Prime Minister.”