Suleyman Demirel: Turkey mourns a deft master of the art of politics

Demirel served as prime minister for seven terms in the 1960s and '70s before becoming president in 1993. He was the target of two military coups.

AP Photo/File
Turkey's former president and longest serving prime minister Suleyman Demirel during a ceremony held in his honor in Isparta province, Turkey, on Oct. 26, 2014.

Suleyman Demirel, who served seven terms as Turkey’s prime minister before being elected president of Turkey, has died at the age of 90. The Turkish government announced three days of mourning in Mr. Demirel’s honor.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Demirel "will be remembered by our beloved people in times to come for the task he took on, the services he brought about, and his political role." 

During a political career that spanned nearly five decades, the center-right Demirel was twice ousted by military coup and escaped an assassination attempt. He was known among his followers in Turkey's farming heartland as Baba, or Daddy. One of his best-known slogans was “Yesterday is yesterday. today is today,” hinting at his flexibility in shifting from one political position to another.

Suleyman Gundogdu Demirel was born Nov. 1, 1924, to a peasant family in the southwestern village of Islamkoy.

He studied engineering and rose to head the State Hydraulic Works by the age of 31, earning the nickname “King of Dams.” 

After a military coup in 1960 left a power vacuum, Demirel was drawn to politics. In 1962 he was elected to the executive board of the center-right Justice Party, and in 1965, he was elected prime minister in a landslide.

Demirel’s government pushed Turkey into the industrial era, with annual economic growth of 6 percent a year. But by 1970, Turkey was in the midst of social unrest caused by conflicts between pro-Islamic parties on the right and students and workers demanding radical reform on the left.

When the conflict started to turn violent, Turkey's powerful military intervened and forced Demirel out of office in 1971 in the so-called "coup by memorandum."

Successive governments failed to manage the rising unrest, and Demirel was back in power in 1975, with the backing of both nationalists and Islamists.

Unable to halt Turkey’s slide into chaos, Demirel was deposed in a second military coup in 1980. The military banned him from politics, but the ban was lifted in 1987.

Demirel returned as prime minister in 1991, and became president after the death of Turkish President Turgut Ozal in 1993, serving until his term expired in 2000. 

“Demirel understood the art of Turkish politics better than anyone of his generation,” Andrew Finkel, an American journalist who interviewed Mr. Demirel many times, told The New York Times. “His flaw was that he was unable to put that understanding to good use.”

Demirel’s wife, Nazmiye, died in May 2013. They had no children.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.