Suleyman Demirel: Prime Minister of Turkey widely admired for efforts to preserve democracy

Demirel helped bring democracy and industry to a country that had fallen far behind its European neighbours and was struggling to catch up

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The Independent Online

Suleyman Demirel was a leading figure in the public life of Turkey during the last half of the 20th century. His seven terms as prime minister and one as president won him international recognition as a political survivor.

Trained as an engineer and credited as a builder of dams and power plants, Demirel was also known for his efforts to bring democracy and industry to a country that had fallen far behind its European neighbours and was struggling to catch up. On the economic front alone, he and his country faced daunting problems, including, at various times, massive inflation, unemployment and foreign debt.

As the holder of the top office in a country located physically and culturally between east and west, between Europe and the Middle East, Demirel was also challenged by religious unrest, concern about the Kurdish minority, tensions with neighbouring countries and conflicts between tradition and modernity. There were also two attempts on his life.

Demirel was the director of the state water company in the late 1950s under the government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who was executed in 1961 after a military coup the previous year. Demirel completed compulsory military service, then continued to rise in politics.

After his party’s victory in the elections of October 1965, he became Prime Minister, holding office for four years; at 41 he was the youngest man to hold the office. In 1969, his party won again, giving him a second term. This proved to be a period in which great public works projects were initiated, including the bridge over the Bosphorus, which spanned the strait between Europe and Asia, and held both material and symbolic significance. After parliament rejected his budget, he resigned as prime minister but was soon back in office under a reorganised government.

During his third term, tensions increased between the government and the military over many of the issues that were bitterly dividing the country: the economy, legislative futility, acts of domestic terrorism, and the dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus, the island in the eastern Mediterranean. In March 1971 a group of generals, seeking a greater role in the country’s divisive politics, staged  what was called “a military coup by memorandum”, sending an ultimatum to President Cevdet Sunay about the continuing unrest while positioning its forces to take control.

Driven from office, Demirel made one of the most remarkable comebacks credited to any world figure. He returned to head coalition governments from 1975-77 and 1977-78. He returned to office once again in 1979, but in September 1980 a coup again saw him removed him from office. He was placed under a 10-year ban from politics, but a referendum in 1987 opened the way for a comeback, and in 1991 he became prime minister for the last time. He then served as president from 1993 to 2000.

During the years of his prominence, Turkey was riven by disputes and demonstrations. Voters provided no party with a clear-cut majority, and forming governments required the blending of members from different parties. Among Demirel’s strongest attributes was his ability to form coalitions and mediate among leaders of rival groups. Although Turkey is an Islamic country, for example, the army stood for secular government.

For many years, Demirel strengthened nascent democratic traditions by persuading the army to stay out of civil politics. Doing this required him to persuade government to avoid giving offence to the military. In particular, he was credited with restraining both sides in 1996 when the military became particularly concerned by what was regarded as a growing threat of Islamism in the civil government.

He was often described as lacking charisma but was highly skilled at behind-the-scenes infighting. Amid fragile coalitions, he was said to have the self-discipline needed to avoid the display of strong feelings, and thus to avoid giving offence. Where other leaders might be incautious about handling protest marches in the streets, Demirel appeared unruffled. “Roads do not wear down by walking,” he said.

One of his main contributions to strengthening Turkey’s relatively young democratic traditions was through industrialisation. It was his view that democratic ideals would win adherents if they could be tied to material benefits. As leader of a centre-right party, he was regarded as upholding traditional values and believing in private enterprise as a means of achieving economic growth. Those asking for their share of the economic pie, he believed, could be accommodated only if the pie grew larger.

The son of a farmer, Demirel was born in 1924, in Islamkoy. Fond of calling himself a “peasant boy”, he graduated in 1948 from the Technical University of Istanbul, where he also received the equivalent of a master’s degree in civil engineering in 1949.

That year, he went to the US for further study of hydraulic engineering with the federal Bureau of Reclamation before taking a leading role on dam projects at home. He returned to the US five years later as an Eisenhower Exchange Fellow, and later worked in private industry in Turkey for Morrison-Knudsen, an American firm.

While he tried to ease tensions between his country and the neighbouring Soviet Union, he also indicated his loyalty to the western camp. Turkey had joined Nato in 1952; in 1966, he welcomed the Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin for a visit. After it was over, he said, “Turkey is sticking with Nato.”   

Suleyman Hundogdu Demirel, politician: born Islamkoy, Turkey 1 November 1924; married Nazmiye (died 2013); died Ankara 17 June 2015.

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