Former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who died June 16 of heart failure at 90, reflected many of his country’s sublime and wicked sides. He served seven terms as prime minister — with two of those terms interrupted by military coups — as well as a presidential stint (1993-2000). Under his prime ministry, many milestone investment projects were achieved, including the first Bosporus bridge connecting Istanbul's Asian and European sides.
Born to a family of struggling farmers in southwest Turkey in 1924, Demirel tended to the village flock to support himself and his relatives. Supporters would later call him, affectionately, “Sulu the Shepherd.” Through hard work and determination, the young Suleyman attended high school in another town, as his home province of Isparta did not have a high school. He graduated as a civil engineer from prestigious Istanbul Technical University in 1949.
Following a fellowship in the United States, Demirel experienced a meteoric rise as a bureaucrat in the 1950s. As chief public servant overseeing the construction and management of Turkey’s hydroelectric dams, he earned the moniker “king of dams.” When the 1960 coup overthrew the Democrat Party government for which he had worked, the young bureaucrat joined the center-right Justice Party. Demirel reassembled his former party’s traditional base of farmers, entrepreneurs and the small but increasingly active professional class. In the 1965 elections, Demirel’s Justice Party defeated legendary statesman Ismet Inonu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and won a parliamentary majority. Just a few days shy of his 41st birthday, Suleyman Demirel became the youngest prime minister in his nation’s history.
Demirel had nothing if not the resilience of Winston Churchill. Even after being toppled in a military coup in 1971 and several times through democratic processes until his ouster in another coup in 1980, he never gave up or lost faith in duty and country. After spending much of the 1980s banned from politics, he led a new political party, the True Path Party, and became prime minister again in 1991. Demirel liked to quip how he “left six times and came back seven times.”
It's a testament to 20th century Turkey’s egalitarian spirit that a poor shepherd boy could become a successful engineer, senior bureaucrat and then prime minister. It was Ismet Inonu who said, as president in the 1940s, that a village boy should have a chance “to sit at [the president’s office] seat” someday. Demirel would realize his former opponent’s dream when he became president in 1993.
But Demirel’s career was not without controversy. His Islamist detractors point out his role in the military-backed ouster of the government of Necmettin Erbakan in 1997, better known as the “Feb. 28 Process.” Demirel’s status as the grand old man in Turkish politics, however, coupled with his shrewdness, probably thwarted another military takeover that would have led to bloodshed and set back democracy in the late 1990s.
Despite accomplishments, Demirel exemplified some of his worst habits of his country’s political class. He tried to suppress weaker opponents, displayed excessive ambition, lacked strategic foresight and refused to make tough choices unless he exhausted other options. As prime minister in the 1960s and 1970s, he tried to coerce radical leftist youths into submission but only convinced them to take up arms against the state. As clashes between radical and nationalist youths spun out of control, Demirel stated that no one could “make [him] say that ‘rightists kill people.’” Demirel’s Justice Party infamously enabled the military regime of 1971-73 to execute three young leftist militants — Deniz Gezmis, Yusuf Aslan and Huseyin Inan — even though they had not killed anyone.
Demirel’s statesmanship left much to be desired. Whenever he reneged on a promise, he would retort that “yesterday is yesterday, today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow.” Changing one’s position has a place in every democracy — governance is impossible without it — but Demirel transformed flip-flopping and opportunism into a fine art. In the midst of an economic downturn and a diplomatic crisis with Turkey’s NATO allies over Cyprus in 1975, he ignored CHP Chairman Bulent Ecevit’s pleas to form a centrist grand coalition. Instead, Demirel chose the dubious Nationalist Front option with Erbakan and Alparslan Turkes’ Nationalist Action Party. Unwilling to lose another election, Demirel raised wages but maintained the price of basic commodities, which caused runaway inflation. (He would lose the 1977 election to Ecevit anyway.)
By September 1980, problems at home and abroad reached unmanageable proportions and Turkey experienced another coup. Along with his nationalist allies and leftist opponents, Demirel again found himself trampled under the military’s boots.
Not that the elder politician failed to shake off his bad habits after his grand comeback in the 1990s. As prime minister from 1991-93, Demirel pursued populist economic policies that led to a massive financial crisis in 1994. Upon ascending to the presidency in 1993, Demirel ignored more experienced members of his former party and endorsed his minister of economy, Tansu Ciller, as a True Path Party leader. Despite the goodwill she accrued as Turkey’s first woman prime minister and notwithstanding her doctorate in economics, the inept and clueless Ciller threw the economy into chaos.
Demirel also did little to stop Ciller from outsourcing Turkey’s Kurdish question to the “deep state.” The shadowy network of military, intelligence and police operatives militarized what was essentially a political and social problem, which helped strengthen the militant Kurdistan Workers Party and caused the senseless death of thousands of innocent Turks and Kurds. Repeating her mentor Demirel’s tactics from the 1970s, Ciller formed a coalition with the Islamist Erbakan in 1996 and pushed the country into further instability. Because of all these problems, per capita income in Turkey stagnated in the 1990s while much of the rest of the world experienced an unprecedented economic boom. Demirel deserves a significant portion of the blame for that.
Notwithstanding his faults, Demirel developed immense political maturity in the twilight of his political career — a dynamic I personally witnessed in March 2000. In a live TV recording hosted by Turkey’s veteran anchorman Ali Kirca, Demirel, still president and hoping for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to serve a second term, fielded questions from a crowd of fairly hostile college students.
In the end, Demirel failed to get his wish and stepped down from the presidency in May 2000. As for us students who helped our president with his retirement, none of us ever got arrested.
If only Demirel had reached that level of maturity early in his career — and if only Turkish politicians today could learn from Demirel.
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