Obituary: Turgut Ozal

Turgut Ozal, politician: born Malatya 10 October 1927; Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey 1980-82, Prime Minister 1983-89, President 1989-93; married twice (two sons, one daughter); died Ankara 17 April 1993.

PRESIDENT Turgut Ozal was the paramount symbol of the dynamism, contradictions and the breathless pace of change in Turkey today.

Few Turks doubt that their eighth president was Turkey's most influential leader since Kemal Ataturk, who founded the republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. He was also one of Turkey's most controversial and exciting personalities, as happy reconfiguring a journalist's laptop computer as strutting the world stage in Turkey's name.

A profile of the short, stocky leader in a Turkish news-magazine a year ago hit on perhaps the most apt description of his dominating character, dubbing him as Turkey's 'unbridled avant-garde'.

Ozal was always popular in Washington and other Western capitals for his early adoption of free-market principles in Turkey in the early 1980s, his staunch opposition to the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War and his pioneering role in breaking down Ataturk-era taboos that had denied the existence of Turkey's ethnic Kurds.

Ozal tirelessly pushed a reluctant Turkey on to the world stage, economically and diplomatically. He revelled in summits, shrugged off his countrymen's scepticism and, long before many others, foresaw the sea change in Turkey's geographic importance that would follow the collapse of the Soviet Union and Iraq.

His hand lay behind Turkey's application to join the European Community, the Black Sea Economic Co-operation zone and attempts to forge a Turkish league between the newly independent Turkic Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union.

The brassy cool he used to raise his own and his country's profile was seen at its best when foreign leaders were jostling to meet the newly elected US President Bill Clinton. Ozal simply flew to the United States. When given a polite hand-off to a date after his presumed departure, Ozal changed his schedule until he got his foot in the door.

Seasoned diplomats at the Turkish foreign ministry awaited his off-the- cuff statements with bated breath. Sometimes they were horrified at blunders, like what Ozal called his game of bluff with the dying Bulgarian Communist regime in 1989 over that country's ethnic Turkish minority. The losers were 300,000 ethnic Turks who poured over the border as refugees. More than half have now gone back.

'Everything will be all right,' was one of his catchphrases, repeated on the steps of the presidential palace a few hours after his inauguration in 1989. Few others than himself predicted he would survive so long politically after discarding Turkish norms of an impartial presidency, broken when he had himself elected president by his then unpopular Motherland Party in a half-empty parliament boycotted by Turkey's opposition.

But Ozal never hid his steely determination. He likened himself to bulls and boxers, saying he could not have survived the hurly-burly of Turkey politics otherwise. 'In Turkey, a politician should have a big heart, and a bigger stomach to take the punches. Othewise you cannot be in politics,' he said.

Born the son of a provincial bank official and devout schoolteacher mother in eastern Turkey in 1927, Ozal was educated as an electrical engineer and rose through the ranks of the bureaucracy.

His first abortive venture into politics in the 1970s was as a candidate for the then pro-Islamic party, and he always remained a devout Muslim. But he was also proud of a role as a typically Turkish model for Muslim secular government. He walked hand in hand with and publicly took advice from his unveiled, cigar-smoking wife Semra. Presidential flights served champagne on take-off for Islamic summits.

Ozal came into his own when, with American support, he formed the centre-right Motherland Party and won the first elections after the 1980-83 military coup. He embarked on a dizzy programme of market reforms and jump-started Turkey's stifling bureaucracy and state-owned industries by importing young Turk 'princes' who had been educated abroad.

Financial and trade liberalisation, modern telecommunications, value- added tax, a reformed Istanbul Stock Exchange and a big rise in Turkish industrial exports soon followed. Budgetary reform and privatisation proved much harder. There was sometimes a sense that reforms were being launched half-baked and it is sometimes forgotten that Ozal was also indirectly responsible for the 'bankers scandal' that robbed many Turks of savings in 1982.

As his popularity slipped in the late 1980s, Ozal fell back on his family circle and was responsible for massive state spending around elections in 1987 and 1989 that left Turkey with chronic high inflation. His health started failing with triple-bypass heart surgery in 1987, after which many detected a change to a more intolerant manner.

Many Turks also disapproved as his family grew obviously richer, his policies became more opportunistic and he adopted a spoiling role as his rival and former mentor, Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, challenged him for leadership of the dominant right wing of Turkish politics.

But to the end all remained fascinated to see what Ozal would do next. Once insecure about their place in the world, Turks have taken courage from the bravery he showed in defying a potential assassin who shot and wounded him in 1988 and with which he stood up before many in the world to defend causes in which Turks believe, such as the need to help the people of Bosnia.

For all his many flaws, Turgut Ozal leaves Turkey a much more open, tolerant, democratic and colourful society than it was. Much of this is due to the natural energy his reforms unleashed in the Turks themselves. But he will be sorely missed as an extraordinary, lively leader, who could be both critic and visionary for his country.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there