Turkey’s former president and prime minister Suleyman Demirel, a giant figure in the country’s politics for over half a century, died Wednesday, the state Anatolia news agency said. He was 90.
In a remarkable career, Demirel survived dismissal in two military coups and a ban on holding office to become president and one of Turkey’s most respected elder statesmen.
Demirel served as prime minister on repeated occasions in the 1960s and 1970s and then again one final time in the 1990s before serving as head of state from 1993 to 2000.
He died of heart failure resulting from a severe respiratory tract infection, Anatolia said, quoting the private Ankara hospital where he was treated.
His heyday was during one of the most chaotic periods of modern Turkish history when governments changed sometimes annually under the shadow of the powerful military, with the country was beset by daily street violence and an economic slump.
– Survivor of two coups –
Trained as an engineer, Demirel first went into politics in the early 1960s in the wake of the 1960 military coup that resulted in the execution of then premier Adnan Menderes.
Leading the centre-right Justice Party (AP), he first become prime minister in 1965, becoming at 40 Turkey’s youngest ever government chief.
He held together a government for some six years, a huge achievement by the standards of the time.
But Demirel resigned in the 1971 coup, which became known as the “coup by memorandum” when the army presented him with a written ultimatum rather than sending tanks onto the streets.
The coup in 1980, the third in the history of the Turkish republic, saw Demirel hit with a ban from all political activity and sent into temporary internal exile at a military camp.
But the ban was overturned through reforms agreed in the constitutional referendum of 1987 which Demirel had himself pressed for.
Leading the True Path Party (DYP) which he founded he replace the AP, Demirel’s forces won 1991 elections and he returned to head the government for a final stint.
He became the ninth Turkish president in May 1993 following the sudden death of Turgut Ozal, serving his full term until 2000.
When his single term as president was to expire — the maximum allowed under the constitution — Demirel tried unsuccessfully to get a second term.
Demirel’s death comes just one month after the general who masterminded the 1980 coup, former president Kenan Evren, died in disgrace after being sentenced to life in prison in June 2014.
– ‘Yesterday was yesterday’ –
Nicknamed “Coban Sulu” (Suleyman the Shepherd), Demirel was known for his earthy turns of phrase and folksy wisdom that showed up his provincial roots in the southern Isparta region.
Critics accused him of being a political chameleon, happy to make common cause with the far right on occasion but also with the Islamists led by Necmettin Erbakan, the father of political Islam in Turkey.
He turned against the Islamists and it was under his presidency that the army ousted Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamic-rooted premier, in 1997 in the so-called “post-modern coup”.
“Yesterday was yesterday, today is today,” Demirel once said to describe his political flip-flopping, adding an immortal line to the Turkish political vernacular.
He was also frequently pictured wearing a fedora hat, which became a symbol of his pragmatic image.
He was also credited with leading key infrastructure projects to modernise Turkey, most notably the first bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
In his later years, he was affectionately known as “Baba” (father).
Even before Demirel’s death, the airport in Isparta was named in his honour, as well as the university in the region.
In total, Demirel ruled the modern Turkish state longer than anyone else as president and prime minister, with the exception of Ismet Inonu, the second president and right hand man of its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Only Inonu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became president in 2014, have served longer as prime minister.
Demirel was married to his wife Nazmiye for 65 years until her death in 2013. They had no children.