Suleyman Demirel, Former Prime Minister of Turkey, Dies at 90

Suleyman Demirel, who served seven times as Turkey’s prime minister, dominating the nation’s politics when the country struggled with violence, economic stagnation and military rule, died early Wednesday in Ankara, Turkey. He was 90.

Guven Hospital in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, confirmed the death in a statement.

In a career that spanned nearly half a century, Mr. Demirel, who became Turkey’s president after his many reprises as prime minister, was the nation’s most remarkable political survivor.

Depending on the mood of the moment, he could be a European-oriented progressive or a harsh opponent of diversity. At various times he made common cause with social democrats, Islamists and crypto-fascists of the extreme right. Twice overthrown in coups, he never questioned the right of generals to play a leading role in Turkish politics.

Mr. Demirel was a glad-handing politician and powerful orator renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of Turkey. It was said he could fly over any village and name its mayor.

“He was a supreme pragmatist. He wanted to stay in power,” said Morton Abramowitz, a former United States ambassador to Turkey. “Whether he achieved much or not wasn’t important.”

Suleyman Gundogdu Demirel — his last name means “iron hand” — was born Nov. 1, 1924, in Islamkoy in southwestern Turkey. The airport in the provincial capital, Isparta, was later named for him, as was the local university.

Like several other Turkish leaders of his generation, Mr. Demirel was trained as an engineer. He oversaw many hydroelectricprojects and became director general of the State Hydraulic Works at 31. He became known as “the king of dams.”

In 1954, Mr. Demirel was the first Turk selected for an Eisenhower Fellowship, a program that brought emerging leaders to the United States for several months of traveling, seminars and classes.

He spent years representing the American engineering and machine-tool firm Morrison Knudsen, leading some leftists to refer to him with scorn as “Morrison Demirel.”

After a military coup in 1960, Mr. Demirel’s political ambitions were encouraged by armed forces commanders who wanted to turn the government over to civilians, whom they believed they could control. In 1965, he was elected prime minister, the country’s youngest at 40.

Perhaps mindful of the fate of Adnan Menderes, the prime minister overthrown by the military and hanged, Mr. Demirel worked closely with the officers who had seized power. Still, violence shook the country, with political gangs staging killings, bombings and kidnappings.

Mr. Demirel’s coalition frayed, and on March 12, 1971, his military patrons demanded that he form a government that could “neutralize the current anarchical situation.” He resigned later that day, allowing the military to take control of the country once again.

After civilian rule was re-established in the late 1970s, Mr. Demirel served as head of three governments. It was during this period that Turkey fell into an economic crisis. Inept handling of foreign debts, compounded by the effects of increasing global oil prices, led to triple-digit inflation, a sharp rise in unemployment and a crash in industrial production. It took a decade for Turkey to make the structural changes — under the leadership of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, a former Demirel protégé — that laid the basis for its current prosperity.

After the military staged its third coup in 1980, it banned Mr. Demirel and other party leaders from politics. The ban was lifted in 1987, and in 1991, Mr. Demirel became prime minister again.

Two years later, Mr. Ozal, then president, died of a heart attack. Mr. Demirel succeeded him, becoming the country’s ninth president. When his term expired in 2000, he tried and failed to have the Constitution amended to allow his re-election.

By that time, many younger Turks had come to view Mr. Demirel as a political figure worthy of scorn. When Parliament rejected the amendment, effectively ending his career, the left-leaning commentator Omer Madra wrote a newspaper column containing just two words: “I’m happy.” The rest of the column was left blank, suggesting that all Turks could understand the reason for his happiness.

Information on survivors was not immediately available. Mr. Demirel and his wife, Nazmiye, who died in 2013, had no children.

“He was always secretive, nontransparent and utterly defensive,” said Yavuz Baydar, a Turkish news commentator. “He was a true sort of Eastern politician with a Western outlook, closer to those of Central Asia than southeastern Europe, a local figure who deliberately stood away from globalism.”

The last years of Mr. Demirel’s career were marked by the emergence of Kurdish nationalism, which developed into civil war. He endorsed the military’s scorched-earth tactics, which included torture of detainees, the assassination of suspected militants and an absolute rejection of Kurdish demands.

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

Mr. Demirel described his country as one dedicated to “tolerance andfreedom of opinion,” and insisted that “all Turkish citizens are fully free and have equal rights.” Yet he urged the Kurds to consider themselves Turks above all. Allowing them to maintain their ethnic identity, he warned, “would lead to the destabilization of Turkey.”

Mr. Demirel also followed the military’s lead in foreign affairs. He was ardently anti-Soviet and promoted good relations with the United States and Israel. When the German Parliament voted in 1992 to cut off military aid because of the harshness of the Kurdish conflict, he declared, “Today, the opinion of the West no longer interests us.”

Interviewers often asked Mr. Demirel how he justified jumping with such alacrity from one political position to another. He would reply, “Dun dundur, bugun bugundur,” which means “Yesterday was yesterday, today is today.” It became his best-known slogan.

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