ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Suleyman Demirel, Turkey’s former president who has died at age 90, dominated his nation’s politics for much of the past half-century, serving seven terms as prime minister and surviving two coups in a time of rapid development and sometimes violent turmoil.
He believed that his governments of the 1960s and 1970s deserved much of the credit for transforming Turkey from a largely agrarian society into an increasingly industrial and urban one, bringing higher living standards for most Turks.
But critics say Demirel symbolized a culture in which power came before principles, and helped entrench patronage and graft. They point to a notorious “family photograph” in which he was surrounded by relatives and associates from the business world — some of whom were later jailed for corruption.
Demirel died at 2:05 a.m. Wednesday at Ankara’s Guven Hospital of heart failure and a respiratory tract infection, doctors said in an announcement broadcast on Turkish television.
In one of his last public appearances in October, Demirel said he believed he had paid his debt to the state.
“Whether it was paid back to the full — that is for the people to decide,” he said.
“My conscience is clear. I dedicated my life to the service of the people and of the state,” he said at the inauguration of the “Democracy and Development Museum” in his birth village of Islamkoy, in southern Isparta province, honoring his political career.
Demirel added: “We said: ‘Let’s save this country from darkness.’ We took light to the most out-of-the-way villages of Turkey. We took electrical lamps to replace gas lamps.”
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.”
Demirel, who served as president from 1993-2000, launched his political career after the 1960 military coup that deposed the government of Adnan Menderes. Menderes and two Cabinet colleagues were executed, and many leading figures in their party were banned from politics — leaving a vacuum on the center-right.
Into that gap strode the political unknown Demirel. Trained as an engineer, he had headed a dam-building program under Menderes before joining the private sector.
At the age of 40 — youthful by Turkish political standards, then and now — Demirel was a surprise choice as leader of the newly formed Justice Party, a center-right successor to Menderes’ party.
The first leading politician from a younger generation that had played no part in the formation of a modern, independent Turkish state after World War I, Demirel came to power with a landslide win in 1965.
His populist style — Demirel was known as “Sulu the shepherd” because of his village background — and his canny use of the symbols of Islam proved a vote-winner in the conservative countryside where most Turks lived. His government had to balance the demands of its rural support base with the need to push Turkey into the industrial era.
That seemed to be working in the mid-1960s, with annual growth of around 6 percent a year as electricity and roads reached new corners of Turkey.
But by 1970, Demirel was on the defensive amid rising political radicalism. On the left, students and workers groups demanded radical reform, while Demirel was being outflanked on the right by new nationalist and pro-Islamic parties.
When the ideological conflict started to turn violent, Turkey’s powerful military intervened. Generals issued an ultimatum that forced Demirel out of office in 1971 — the so-called “coup by memorandum.”
Successive governments, led first by military-backed technocrats and then by Demirel’s great rival Bulent Ecevit, failed to get a grip on the spiraling violence, which worsened in the 1970s as Turkey’s economy, hit by sharply rising oil prices, slumped into crisis.
Demirel was back in power in 1975, but his unwieldy coalition — including Islamists and nationalists — couldn’t halt Turkey’s slide into chaos. Many accused Demirel of turning a blind eye to his nationalist coalition partners who openly incited violence that saw dozens killed weekly in clashes between left- and right-wing gangs.
He was deposed in a second military coup in 1980.
According to late journalist Mehmet Ali Birand’s account, Demirel was on the telephone to his interior minister on the night of Sept. 11, 1980, when the line went dead. Looking out of the window of the prime minister’s residence, he saw that his bodyguards had been replaced by armed soldiers.
“It is a pity, a pity for the motherland, a pity for us all,” Demirel said, before packing his bags for prison.
Banned from politics for much of the 1980s, he returned as prime minister again in 1991. He became president in 1993 on the death of Turgut Ozal.
As president, Demirel fostered ties with the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union, and took credit for brokering the peaceful ouster of an Islamist government under pressure from the secular-minded military in 1997, at a time when many feared a coup. The ouster was later dubbed Turkey’s “postmodern coup.”
Demirel’s wife, Nazmiye, died in May 2013. The couple had no children.
He was expected to be buried in Islamkoy after a state funeral, tentatively set for Friday, in Ankara.
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