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Suleyman Demirel (November 1, 1924 – June 17, 2015) 18 juin 2015

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Times (UK) 18 June 2015, p. 43


Indefatigable Turkish leader who served seven times as prime minister and was ousted twice by the military.

Suleyman Demirel is « pragmatic to the degree of having no principles, » a profile of the Turkish prime minister noted in 1978. « He is a man of boundless energy and awe-inspiring memory. He has no children, no hobbies, does not jog or play golf, rarely takes holidays and never goes on a trip unless required by his official functions. His whole life appears to be devoted to politics. »

In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that Demirel had no time for a life outside government. He served seven times as Turkey’s prime minister between 1965 and 1993; he was twice deposed by military coups; and he served seven years as president. He was one of the dominant personalities in Turkish politics for a tumultuous half a century during which his country — a key member of Nato — veered between military rule and weak coalition governments, was racked by political violence between the left and the right, and metamorphosed from an agrarian to an industrial, urbanised society with all the attendant social pressures.

Demirel was a great survivor, and his core constituency were the rural conservatives of Turkey’s heartland. He was a forceful personality, a supreme political manipulator and a glad-handing populist with a talent for working a crowd. He could allegedly name the mayor of every Turkish village. Stocky and bald with a trademark fedora hat, he was sometimes referred to as « Baba », or « Father », by his followers.

He had beliefs, if not principles: a politician of the right, he was broadly prowestern and pro-market, and a strong advocate of Turkish membership of the European Economic Community (as the EU was then called). He did not challenge the military’s dominant role in Turkish politics. Latterly he favoured the ruthless suppression of Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey and the rejection of Kurdish demands for greater rights. Those beliefs, however, were often subsumed by his pragmatism. « Dun dundur, bugun bugundur, » he would reply when asked about his changing political positions. « Yesterday was yesterday, today is today. »

Demirel was also accused of patronage and graft. A famous « family photograph » showed him surrounded by relatives and business associates — several of whom were subsequently jailed for corruption. Yet that did not trouble him. « My conscience is clear, » he declared last year at the opening of the Democracy and Development Museum, honouring his career, in the rural village where he was raised. « I dedicated my life to the service of the people and the state. »

Suleyman Gundogdu Demirel was born into a farmer’s family in Islamkoy, in Isparta province, in 1924. He graduated in civil engineering from Istanbul Technical University, and aged 24 married Nazmiye Sener, who also came from Isparta. She died in 2013 after 65 years of marriage, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for several years. They had no children.

After graduating, Demirel studied irrigation and dam construction in the US and was the first Turk to be offered an Eisenhower fellowship — a programme that brought potential foreign leaders to the US for several months of travel and research. On his return he became head of the government’s dams department, and in 1955 — aged 31 — was appointed as director-general of the state hydraulics works. He supervised the construction of numerous hydroelectric barrages and irrigation projects, earning himself the unofficial title of « the king of dams ». Thereafter he worked for a US machine tool company, Morrison Knudsen, as its Turkish representative, until his incipient political career took over.

After a military coup in 1960 the prime minister, Adnan Menderes, was hanged and his Democrat party (DP) banned, leaving a vacuum on the centre right. Demirel joined the DP’s successor, the Justice party, and became its chairman in 1964. He served briefly as the deputy prime minister in a coalition government, and in 1965 became Turkey’s youngest prime minister, at the age of 40. His rise was so fast that he still did not have a parliamentary seat.

Demirel led Turkey for the next seven years, winning re-election with a landslide victory in 1969. At first « Sulu the Shepherd » (he was also humorously known as Spartacus, referring to his native province of Isparta) seemed popular. He brought roads and electricity to remote parts of the country and presided over steady economic growth. He began the construction of the Bosphorus Bridge, linking Europe and Asia. However, by the beginning of the 1970s Turkey was engulfed by strikes, social unrest and violence between workers and students on the left, and Islamists and nationalists on the right. This time the generals did not send tanks on to the streets. In what became known as the « coup by memorandum », they sent Demirel an ultimatum demanding that he « neutralise the current anarchical situation ». Demirel resigned. « It’s impossible to reconcile the terms of the military proclamation with either the constitution or the conception of a legal state, » he said. His successor, Bulent Ecevit, fared little better. Turkey’s economy was hit by soaring oil prices and inflation.

Between 1975 and 1980, Demirel became prime minister three more times. He was finally ousted by yet another military coup on September 11, 1980, launched by General Kenan Evren (obituary, May 11, 2015). He was speaking to his interior minister when he saw from the window of his residence that his bodyguards had been replaced by armed soldiers. « It is a pity for the motherland, a pity for us all, » he said as he packed his bags for prison. Martial law ensued and Demirel was banned from politics.

It was Turgut Ozal who, as prime minister, introduced the economic reforms of the 1980s that eventually brought prosperity to Turkey, but Ozal relinquished the job to become president. By 1991 Demirel was prime minister again, having persuaded his countrymen to lift his political ban. This time he was leader of the True Path party, which had replaced the proscribed Justice party, and formed a coalition with the Social Democratic Populist party.

In 1993 Ozal died of a heart attack, though some argue he was assassinated for negotiating with his country’s restive Kurdish minority. Turkey’s Grand Assembly elected Demirel to succeed him. He was president for seven years. When his term expired he asked parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to be re-elected. It refused.

By then Demirel was seen as a figure from the past and derided by younger Turks. When parliament refused to change the constitution — effectively ending his political career — one commentator, Omer Madra, wrote a newspaper column consisting of just two words: « I’m happy. » He left the rest of the space blank, knowing his compatriots would understand.

Suleyman Demirel, Turkish politician, was born on November 1, 1924. He died on June 17, 2015, aged 90


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