Süleyman Demirel (born 1924) was a seven-time Turkish prime minister who later became president. He also led the now defunct Justice party. Throughout his career, Demirel was an outspoken proponent of secularism, holding fast to the political beliefs of Republic of Turkey founder Kemel Ataturk.
Süleyman Demirel was one of the most important politicians of modern Turkey, representing the entry of the modernist, pragmatic technocrat into the political arena. Under his rule, the country made rapid economic progress. However, this led to grave socio-economic problems and to his own fall in 1971 and in 1980.
Demirel was born in 1924 in the village of Islamköy in the western province of Isparta—where the ancient city of Sparta was located—into a middle class family. After completing his schooling in the provinces, he went to Istanbul Technical University in 1942 and graduated in 1949 as a civil engineer. He entered state service and was sent to America for research at the Bureau of Reclamation in Washington, D.C., in 1949 and 1950. In 1954 Demirel was appointed director of the Bureau of Dams and came to be known as a supporter of the ruling Democrat party (DP) in the bureaucracy.
The 1950s were years of close relations between the United States and Turkey, especially after Turkey fought in Korea and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. Demirel was a beneficiary of this relationship, for when the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship was established in 1954 he was again sent to America as one of the first Turkish fellows in September. There he made contacts which served him well in private life and when he entered politics in the 1960s, acquiring the reputation of "friend of America." Upon his return to Turkey in 1955, Demirel was appointed director of the State Hydraulics Administration, a post he held until May 1960 when the Turkish army ousted the DP government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.
The military intervention of May 27, 1960, was a turning point in the politics of modern Turkey and in Demirel's life. Not only did the army remove the government, but it also closed down the Democrat party and thereby created a serious political vacuum in the country. Demirel, as a confirmed supporter of the defunct party, was forced out of state service and began working independently as an engineer. He worked as a consultant for Morrison-Knudsen, a major U.S. company, and also taught engineering at the Middle East Technical University in the capital, Ankara. But his most important decision was to join the Justice party (JP) when it was founded in 1961. He was elected to its administrative council the following year and became party chairman in 1964.
After the general election of 1961 the Justice party became the successor to the DP and began to play a crucial role in the coalition governments of the period. Demirel, who was not as yet a member of parliament, directed the party from outside the Assembly in such a way as to make the governments of rival parties unstable. In February 1965 he forced the resignation of the Ismet Inönü coalition by having its budget defeated. The new coalition government, formed by an independent, non-party senator, Suat Ü rgüplü, included Süleyman Demirel as deputy prime minister. When general elections were held in October 1965, the JP won an outright victory despite the provisions for proportional representation and ended the period of coalitions. Demirel was elected from his home town, Isparta, and was appointed prime minister, leading the government for the next six years.
Demirel's policies of rapid economic modernization, which undermined the small, traditional sectors while encouraging larger, innovative enterprises, had important political consequences. Many of his supporters were alienated and tried to remove him from the party's leadership. But they failed because his hold on the party was too firm. Consequently, his opponents were forced to leave the JP and join the small parties of the right, such as the conservative Democratic party, the religious National Salvation party (NSP), and the neo-fascist Nationalist Action party (NAP).
These were turbulent and difficult years for Turkey. The right criticized the government from one flank, the left from the other. The trade unions demanded higher wages to keep up with inflation, and radical students, inspired by their peers in European and American universities, also became involved in politics. By the late 1960s terrorism of the left and the right had also become a factor in Turkish politics. The constant instability affected the armed forces, and the commanders, convinced that Demirel could no longer control the situation, intervened and forced him to resign on March 12, 1971.
Struggle to Survive
Despite this setback Demirel refused to give up his party's leadership, and the JP paid the price when it lost the elections in 1973. Demirel was forced into opposition, but not for long. The coalition government led by prime minister Bülent Ecevit resigned after Turkey's successful invasion of Cyprus in July and August 1974. Ecevit hoped that his newly-won popularity would enable him to win an early general election with a majority sufficient to form a party government. His hopes were dashed by the parties of the right, which refused to permit early elections.
Instead, Demirel formed a four-party coalition of the right, popularly known as the First Nationalist Front, including the NAP and the NSP, on March 31, 1975. He ruled until June 1977 when elections were held. Again Ecevit's Republican People's party won, though not with a sufficient majority to form a government on its own. Therefore, Demirel formed the Second Nationalist Front on July 21, 1977. But this coalition seemed so much under the influence of the NAP, a party directly involved in the rampant terrorism of the 1970s through the Gray Wolves organization, that there were resignations from the Justice party and Demirel's coalition fell on December 31, 1977. Ecevit now formed a coalition and ruled until November 1979. But since there was little he could do to solve the problems he had inherited—terrorism, economic stagnation, inflation, and unemployment—he lost his popularity and was forced to resign. Demirel formed Turkey's first minority government on November 12, but he too lacked the means to cope with the social, economic, and political crises that plagued the country in the 1970s. In the end the military commanders intervened again on October 12, 1980, and ousted Demirel. They were convinced that only an authoritarian regime could solve Turkey's problems.
Barred From Politics
Under the military regime all political parties were abolished, and active politicians like Demirel were barred from all political activity for ten years. It was easy to pass such a law but virtually impossible to enforce it. Thus, when political activities were restored in April 1983 and new parties were formed, everyone knew that Süleyman Demirel was active behind the scene. One of the new parties prominent in Turkish politics, the True Path party, openly looked to Demirel for inspiration and guidance.
Demirel, who began his political career when he became a deputy in parliament from his home of Isparta in 1965, serving until 1980, returned to that post to serve from 1987 to 1991. He was chairman of the Justice party from 1965 until it was disbanded in 1980. Following the lifting of a ban on political activities by his and other parties in 1987, Demirel became chairman of the new True Path party and reentered parliament. In 1991 Demirel became prime minister for the seventh time since 1965 after his True Path party's victory in October elections and the formation of Turkey's first coalition government in more than 12 years.
Only 18 months after Demirel became prime minister, the Turkish Grand National Assembly in May 1993 elected him to become the ninth president of the republic following the April death of President Turgut Ozal. While he was prime minister, Demirel had criticized President Ozal for overstepping the traditionally ceremonial powers of the presidency. At his swearing in—to which he wore a top hat, white tie and tails—Demirel said, "It is unthinkable that the president will ever take sides or take a stand that could cast a shadow over his impartiality. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret impartiality as avoiding national and international problems which have a political nature and as not becoming involved in issues at all." Observers noted clashes between Ozal and Demirel centered as much on personalities as on politics. Ozal championed linking Turkey to the central Asian republics and establishing close ties with Europe and the United States through broad, expansive schemes. Demirel was seen as a crafty political maneuverer and "a consummate deal maker."
Unrest At Home
While during his presidency Demirel worked to strengthen ties with the United States and Europe, political turmoil at home also kept him busy. In October 1995, Demirel postponed a trip to the United States after Prime Minister Tansu Ciller lost a vote of confidence and resigned. The president quickly asked Ciller to form a new government and later in the month gave his approval for a coalition government of the center-right True Path party and a Social Democratic party to serve until the end of the year. In elections held in December 1995, Ciller's secularist and pro-Western True Path party was defeated by the pro-Islamic Welfare party. Demirel said at the time he would look to parties that could pass a parliamentary vote of confidence, which did not necessarily mean the victorious Welfare party. The following month, Welfare party leader Necmettin Erbakan was invited by Demirel to form a coalition government. Despite skepticism that he would succeed, Erbakan became prime minister.
However, Demirel remained an outspoken proponent of the secular system created by Kemel Ataturk, founder of the republic. In May 1996, Demirel escaped a would-be assassin's bullet unscathed. The pro-Islamic gunman was angered by an accord allowing Israeli jets to train in Turkish airspace. In newspaper interviews the following year, Demirel said Turkish laws made it clear what activities were crimes against the secular system and offered a veiled threat of a crackdown. "We do not want to be a country of bans but, if necessary, other laws can be passed on this subject." If anyone wants Islamic law, "it means he is not happy with the modern system and wants the old system, but Turkey does not want to retrogress …." Also, in seeming contradiction to his earlier criticism of former president Ozal, Demirel called for enhancement of presidential powers to allow the head of state to handle issues whenever Turkey was in what he called an uneasy state.
Although politics at home kept him busy, Demirel's activities abroad were numerous. A good deal of his effort went toward promoting Turkey for membership in the European Union. A December 1996 visit to Kazakhstan was aimed in part at strengthening bilateral relations and discussion of Turkish cooperation in the laying of an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to a terminal near the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. Demirel also worked to strengthen ties with Iran. Following a meeting with Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Demirel said Turkey and Iran were two friendly neighboring countries sharing the same faith and deep cultural ties. Talks between Demirel and his Romanian counterpart, Emil Constantinescu, led to the signing of a free trade agreement between the countries and two other accords in April 1997. The following month on a visit to Poland, Demirel promoted a strategic partnership between Turkey and Poland and voiced support for the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Demirel's attention was soon called home again by political unrest. Following pressure from the Turkish military, which had been angered by attempts to chip away at secularism, Prime Minister Erbakan resigned in June 1997. Demirel was called upon to pick his successor and chose Motherland party leader Mesut Yimaz. Comments made by Demirel at about this time indicated his still strong support of secularism. "Secularism and modernism are required for civilization. This is the direction that Ataturk showed us."
Further Reading on Süleyman Demirel
There is as yet no biography of Süleyman Demirel in English, but Feroz Ahmad, The Turkish Experiment in Democracy 1950-1975 (1975) covers the years in which he was active. C. H. Dodd, Democracy and Development in Turkey (1979) and Walter Weiker, The Modernization of Turkey: From Ataturk to the Present Day (1981) throw light on the years after 1975.