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Süleyman Demirel obituary 17 juin 2015

Posted by Acturca in History / Histoire, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Guardian (UK) 17 June 2015, p. 39

David Barchard

Dominant figure in Turkey’s politics and seven times its PM. In 1983, three years after a coup, Süleyman Demirel, previously five times Turkish prime minister, was still being held prisoner in a military camp. Distressed at the glowing publicity the country’s military junta was receiving in the west, Demirel and his fellow prisoners sent a secret emissary to Britain, hoping to contact the Conservative government, drawing attention to the dark side of military rule and accusing western politicians of “clapping until their hands were red”.

Despite Demirel’s eminence, no notice was taken of the letter by the Conservatives, who simply redirected its bearer to Edward Mortimer, at the time a foreign policy commentator on the Times. This was the one time during Demirel’s 35-year political career that he made a direct appeal to western liberals and politicians. But, detecting no charisma in Demirel, they paid him little attention, despite his obvious survival skills.

Yet between 1965 and the close of the century, Demirel, who has died aged 90, waged a largely successful battle for democratic politics and rapid economic development in Turkey amid incessant turbulence. Though at times he made serious mistakes, he not only made comebacks after two military coups but also lived to see Turkey become a prosperous middle-income industrial country, though under an Islamist government that more or less obliterated the former tradition of centre-right politics.

Born into a family of peasant farmers in Islamköy, a village in Isparta province in south-western Turkey, Demirel graduated as an engineer from Istanbul Technical University. While there he was a classmate of Necmettin Erbakan, the future leader of Turkey’s Islamist revival and attended his prayer meetings. Demirel’s technical ability attracted the attention of the prime minister, Adnan Menderes, and at the age of 31 he became director general of the state hydraulic works agency, after a period studying in the US on a scholarship from the Eisenhower foundation. Turkey’s network of hydropower projects in the south-east was his brainchild.

After the military coup in 1960 that deposed Menderes’s government, Demirel emerged as winner in the contest to lead Turkey’s centre right, first becoming prime minister after the 1965 general election. Though he and his Justice party seemed to have a natural majority in the country, Demirel was hard pressed, even with his considerable skills, to stay on top of a stormy situation. Leftists plotted with the military to set up a government along the lines of the Ba’athist administrations of Arab countries to the south, while his own followers were riven by feuds, and annual population growth of 3% produced urban chaos and protests at the nation’s economic backwardness.

Demirel was forced to devalue the lira. In June 1970 there were massive protests in Istanbul and martial law was introduced. Inflation began to rise into double and sometimes triple digits and was used to finance major economic and infrastructural projects. This mixture of pressures set the prevailing pattern in Turkish life until the end of the century.

In March 1971 the military unexpectedly ordered Demirel and his government to resign but did not shut parliament down. The withdrawal of the military from politics coincided with the rise of Bülent Ecevit on the centre left. Demirel allied with the Islamists and nationalist right fringes – thus inadvertently giving them a permanent place in national politics – and became prime minister again in 1975 at the head of an anti-left “nationalist front” government. The polarisation that he fostered led to political paralysis, culminating in the military coup of 12 September 1980 with Kenan Evren at its head.

In detention, Demirel was held with his left-of-centre rivals, with whom he found himself on surprisingly good personal terms. When civilian politics returned, Turkish centre left and centre right for the first time found it easy to co-operate.

After 1981 Turkey moved away from protectionist economic policies to a market economy and renewed growth, as Demirel’s rival Turgut Özal pursued bolder policies than his. Demirel was banned from politics by the military until a referendum in 1987 reinstated him. By 1991 he was prime minister again, though now at the head of a coalition, and in 1993 he was elected president, retiring after seven years.

His most controversial act as head of state came in 1997, when he evicted Erbakan, by this time the Islamist prime minister, from power by leading him to expect he would still be part of a new coalition if he resigned, but then appointing a rival. This blocked the Islamist movement from power in Turkey until its comeback in 2002. Though the Turkish military are frequently blamed for this, the decision seems to have been Demirel’s own.

Widely read, he could talk easily both to farmers and visiting foreign professors. He was an ebullient but also in some ways a personally shy man. The Islamist course of Turkish politics after 2002 disappointed him and he made few public statements in the final years of his life. He is likely to be remembered as an arch-compromiser who steered Turkey through critical decades.

In 1948 he married Nazmiye Demirel, a cousin. She died in 2013.

• Sami Süleyman Gündogdu Demirel, politician, born 1 November 1924; died 17 June 2015

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