Turkey loses its world class politician

Turkey loses its world class politician

Is there any other politician in the world who was overthrown by the military twice and then elected again to the country’s top posts by the people?

Turkey’s 9th president, Süleyman Demirel, was perhaps the only example in political history.

Demirel entered politics in his early thirties. Being a poor peasant boy from the İslamköy village in the small Western Anatolian province of Isparta, he made his way up to the civil engineering department at Istanbul Technical University thanks to the public education model of the young Turkish Republic and started to work as a water engineer. One of the first projects he took part in was the irrigation project of his İslamköy village in 1960, which is still in use by farmers there.

An Eisenhower Fellowships exchange program in 1955 in the United States had opened up his vision about what could be done for a developing economy, and he would go on to be nicknamed the “King of the Dams” in his future political career.

He got into politics in 1961, right after the military coup that had taken place a year before. His aim in politics was not only about developing the economy, but also about developing democracy. In his early years in politics he managed to supervise the construction of many dams, power plants and heavy industry facilities, including three big Soviet investments, an iron and steel plant, an oil refinery and an aluminum refinery, as a NATO member country amid the Cold War.

But when the general issued an ultimatum to his government in 1971, he had to leave the prime minister’s office, with disturbing memories of the execution of the country’s prime minister, Adnan Menderes, together with foreign and finance ministers through showcase military court trials after the 1960 coup; a trauma which did not leave Demirel throughout his political life.

Later in the 1970’s he was back in politics, in a country becoming more politically polarized every other day. Demirel and his rival, Bülent Ecevit, were swooping places in fragile and short coalition governments. Demirel’s confirmation of the execution of three leftist students and statements like “You cannot make me say that right-wingers are killing people” following a major killing spree at a time when the country was being dragged into a civil war-like atmosphere are examples debated even today. The harshness of Turkish politics had affected Demirel too.

The 1980 military coup in Turkey overthrew Demirel once again from the prime minister’s chair. He was forbidden from politics by the military, like many other key political figures. After a key referendum in 1987 where people defied the ban, Demirel was back once again. But this time Demirel had changed in a positive manner. He established a coalition with his historical rivals, social democrats, in a restoration government.

He was proud he had lost his chair six times but got it back seven times. 

Following his election as the ninth president of Turkey in 1993, Demirel portrayed an exemplary leadership style of tolerance and inclusiveness. People from all walks of life and from every political tendency, even his staunch opponents, had the opportunity to have access to him and get their voices heard. He managed to mend many fences and win many hearts that had been broken in the past. 

In foreign policy Demirel used the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to upgrade Turkey’s role as a major regional player having access to a rediscovered political geography, from the Turkic states of Central Asia to the disintegrating Balkans and the Middle East right after the Iraq War. He was the major supporter of a Western-oriented Turkey with better relations with the U.S. and the European Union.

During the opening of a museum in his name in his birthplace last year, Demirel said, “I want to give the message to the Turkish youth that if I could succeed, you can succeed, too. This was all possible thanks to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and our Republic that he established. We owe all these things to Atatürk, as well as our democracy struggle to make our Republic better for our people.”

Passing away in the early hours of June 17 at his age of 91 due to multi-organ failure in Ankara, Demirel is going to be buried on June 20 near his museum, after a state funeral in parliament in Ankara the day before.