Bulent Ecevit

Political pragmatist and working-man's-cap populist who was five times Prime Minister of Turkey


Bülent Ecevit, journalist and politician: born Istanbul 28 May 1925; staff, Press Attaché's Office, Turkish Embassy, London 1946-50; journalist, Ulus (Republican People's Party newspaper) 1950-61; MP (Republican People's Party) 1957-60, 1961-80; Minister of Labour 1961-65; Secretary-General, Republican People's Party 1966-71, Chairman 1972-80; Prime Minister of Turkey 1974, 1977, 1978-79, 1999-2002, Deputy Prime Minister 1997-98; Chairman, Democratic Left Party 1989-2004; married 1946 Rahsan Aral; died Ankara 5 November 2006.

Five times Prime Minister of Turkey, Bülent Ecevit was a charismatic yet controversial figure whose keen sense of survival sustained him through nearly 50 years of Turkey's turbulent political life.

A highly educated and colourful figure, fluent in English and with a penchant for writing poetry, Ecevit was a pragmatist whose instincts for political survival often led to unexpected U-turns. For most of his career, he was a leftist and a nationalist. In the early 1970s, he stunned secularists when he joined a coalition with an Islamist party. In his twilight years, from 1999 to 2002, he headed an odd coalition with far-right nationalists. Under pressure from the IMF to restructure Turkey's ailing economy, he abandoned much of his leftism and introduced an ambitious privatisation programme. He remained, however, a hawk until the end.

Despite his mixed political legacy, Ecevit commanded respect among many Turks for his honesty and down-to-earth life style. Early in his career he donned a symbolic working man's cap and was rarely seen in public without it. He shunned luxury cars and big apartments and was untainted by accusations of corruption that plagued many of his political colleagues.

In many ways, and partly through sheer longevity, Ecevit's career mirrored changes in Turkey over the years. A journalist and a poet, he started out in 1957 as a staunchly leftist MP - the youngest ever - with Kemal Ataturk's left-wing Republican People's Party (CHP). His mentor, Ismet Inönü, then the CHP leader, spoke of the young Ecevit's ambition, idealism and stubbornness - all qualities which described him throughout his career.

He later became an American ally, and, although he had rejected the idea of joining the European Union in the 1970s, it was under his leadership in 1999 that Turkey was eventually accepted as a candidate for membership. Ecevit also made his mark internationally in 1974 when he ordered the invasion of Cyprus in response to a Greek-backed coup in Nicosia that led to the division of the Mediterranean island.

Born in Istanbul in 1925, Bülent Ecevit graduated in literature from Istanbul's Robert College, a breeding ground for much of the country's English-speaking élite. A class yearbook description wrote that "a cup of tea, a piece of paper, a pencil and a poetry book are the most faithful friends of Bülent". Ecevit's father was a professor of medicine and his mother one of the first women in Turkey to become a professional painter. He was their only child.

It was at Robert College that Ecevit met his wife Rahsan, while rehearsing a play. An ambitious political player in her own right, she was an important confidante throughout his career, and involved in his decision-making. Famously inseparable, the couple had no children.

Interested in journalism, Ecevit worked as a press attaché at the Turkish embassy in London in the late 1940s. During this period, which he later described as one of the happiest of his life, Ecevit studied art history and Sanskrit at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

He returned to Turkey in 1950 and took up politics with the CHP. After four years as Minister of Labour, he became secretary-general of the party in 1966. But the early 1970s were a time of political turmoil in Turkey with rampant street fighting between left- and right-wing partisans. The army eventually intervened to impose martial law in March 1971.

When Inönü supported a government set up by the military, Ecevit resigned from the post of CHP secretary-general. After defeating Inönü, then 87, in 1972, Ecevit became party chairman, and, two years later, Turkey's Prime Minister, in a much-debated coalition with the Islamist National Salvation Party.

Despite the spectacular success of the Cyprus invasion, he failed to hold his government together and resigned in September 1974. From then on, Ecevit's political career was turbulent. He served as Prime Minister twice briefly during the late 1970s, but was also in and out of prison following coups. In 1980, he stepped down as chairman of the CHP in protest at military rule. Banned from politics for 10 years, he remained active and his opinions were sought after.

In the late 1990s he staged a political comeback. Then in his seventies, he was re-elected to power in the hopes that his honesty and integrity would bring stability to a crisis-ridden country. He headed an unlikely three-way coalition with far-right nationalists and the centre-right Motherland Party.

His tenure began well. He was hailed a hero for securing the capture of the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. But later that year his government took a battering for botching the aftermath of two devastating earthquakes that killed thousands and damaged the economy.

Plagued by a series of crises, the economy finally collapsed after Ecevit had a public spat with the country's president Ahmet Necdet Sezer and declared "a serious state crisis". His comments sent the Turkish lira tumbling, wiping off a quarter of its value overnight, and the International Monetary Fund was called in to bail the economy out.

The crisis triggered Turkey's worst-ever recession but despite failing health, Ecevit refused to stand down. In the subsequent 2002 elections, his party suffered a crushing defeat to Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, heralding a new era in Turkish politics.

Above all a political pragmatist with a finely tuned sense of populism, it was fitting that Ecevit made his last public appearance, frail and faltering, at the public funeral of a judge shot dead in an Islamist motivated attack in May. Shortly afterwards, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered.

Pelin Turgut

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