Under the military regime of 1980-1983, Turgut Özal (1927-1993) began to direct Turkey's economy toward the free market. That process was accelerated after he became prime minister in 1983 and president in 1989. By the time of his death in 1993, Turkey's economy and society had been transformed almost beyond recognition.
Turgut Özal was born in Malatya, Turkey on October 13, 1927 into a humble, provincial family. He was the eldest of three sons, the other two being Korkut and Yusuf Bozkurt. Özal's father was a minor bank official and mother, Hafize, a primary school teacher. Hafize was the strongest influence in the family, constantly emphasizing the importance of education as the way to overcome the family's poverty.
After completing his schooling with honors, Özal enrolled at the Istanbul Technical University in 1946 to study electrical engineering. These were exciting times in Turkey. The country had just created a multi-party regime, an important step in Turkey's democratic development and its integration into the Western world. At the university he met future leaders such as Suleyman Demirel and Necmettin Erbakan who went on to play significant roles in Turkish politics. Both men were instrumental in promoting Özal's career and drawing him into politics.
After graduating in 1950, Özal joined the Office for Electrical Research in Ankara and worked there until 1965. There was little of consequence to report in Özal's life in the 1950s. His arranged marriage in 1952 to a girl from his hometown lasted only a few months. His second marriage to his secretary, Semra Yeyinmen, was of great significance. The latter was a woman of strong ambition, described as the driving force behind her husband's rise to power. They had a daughter, Zeynep, and a son, Ahmet, and both children were figures of controversy once their father rose to power.
Özal went to the United States in 1954 for further studies and there acquired his life-long admiration for American know-how and for the knack of "getting the job done." Back in Turkey he was placed in the State Planning Organization (SPO) during his military service (1959-1961) and also taught mathematics at the Middle East Technical University.
Entry into Public Service
Özal began his rise to prominence in 1966 when Prime Minister Demirel made him a technical advisor. The following year he was sent to the SPO in order to purge that institution of those elements who were hostile to the private sector. Özal created his own conservative, Islamist team who would continue to serve him faithfully. The military coup of March 12, 1971 against Demirel left Özal out in the cold. However, Özal had made good contacts in the business world, which allowed him to spend two years (1971-1973) in Washington as an advisor at the World Bank.
On his return to Turkey, Özal joined Sabanci Holding, one of the biggest corporations in the country. He left Sabanci in 1975 to work independently as an entrepreneur, and that is when he began to make his fortune. These were good years for the Özals. In 1973, Korkut was elected to Parliament on the religious National Salvation Party's ticket and became minister of agriculture in the coalition government of 1974. Turgut also decided to enter politics and joined his brother's party, but was defeated in the 1977 general election. This turned out to be fortunate, for had he won he would have been disqualified from politics by the military junta that seized power on September 12, 1980.
The 1970s had been years of turmoil in Turkey. The elections of 1973 and 1977 created unstable coalitions that could not cope with the country's many problems. The economy was in tatters, due largely to the crisis in the world, but also because Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in 1974 had left the country isolated even from her allies. The instability was aggravated by terrorism, which seemed designed to provoke military intervention. In these circumstances, Özal was appointed Demirel's economic adviser in November 1979 and given the task of implementing a packet of tough monetary measures. The economic program Özal presented in January 1980 was described by the Economist as an "economic earthquake." The program, a radical departure from earlier policies, was designed to create a new economy based on exports rather than the home market. The lira was devalued 30 percent on top of the 43 percent devaluation in 1979, prices were allowed to rise sharply; and wages were tightly controlled, leading to a wave of strikes. The "law of the market" was to prevail so that only the large and efficient enterprises would survive and be competitive.
Such a program could not be implemented without military discipline, and Özal said so. He asked for five years of stability to set the economy straight and that is what the military regime gave him. He was made deputy prime minister and minister of state in charge of the economy in the military government and was described in the foreign press as the "economic supremo." The painful deflationary program was enforced under martial law and inflation of over 100 percent came down as a result. This was part of the success story. However, Özal was forced to resign in July 1982. His policy of freeing interests without adequate controls had led to the "Bankers' scandal"; thousands of middle-class savers lost money on the promise of incredibly high interest rates, that proved impossible to meet.
Özal the Politician
Özal decided to enter politics when political activity was restored in April 1983. He formed the Motherland Party, claiming to unite all the ideological tendencies represented by the parties banned by the junta. His party won the election in November only because its main rivals had not been allowed to run, and Özal became the first civilian prime minister. The local elections of April 1984, confirmed Özal's power and gave him greater confidence.
The party and government were both under Özal's firm control and he brooked no criticism from those around him. The country continued to be ruled by the army under laws passed by the junta while Özal concentrated on the economy. New laws, all designed to create a modern, up-to-date economic structure, were passed during these years. The economy seemed to have turned a corner, especially with the growth of exports, though the foreign debt kept growing.
Fortunes were made and a new class of rich emerged for whom money was no object. There was much corruption in government, leading to resignations. That affected Özal's own reputation, especially when his family seemed to be involved. Charges of nepotism flew as Özal's brothers, sons, nephews, and other relatives all moved into prominent government or business posts. Özal helped his wife, Semra, take the helm of the ruling party in Istanbul. As a result of these clouds and his abrupt (some said, sultanic) nature, his popularity declined dramatically. His support slipped from a high of 45 percent in 1983 to the low of 22 percent in April 1989. Opinion polls reported that Özal's popularity had declined to single digits in the early 1990s. There were resignations from the party and few people believed that it would survive the election of 1992. Under these circumstances, Özal decided to have himself elected president of the Republic while his party enjoyed a sufficient majority in the assembly. He became Turkey's eighth president on October 31, 1989, but the opposition promised to oust him as soon as it came to power at the next election.
The 1991 election brought Özal's Motherland Party only 24 percent of the vote. However, Suleyman Demirel was the victor, with the leader of the True Path Party, with only 27 percent. Though Demirel had sworn to run Özal from office upon victory, he could do so only if he was successful in creating a coalition to oppose the president in parliament. Özal's gamble had paid off, and he was to remain president until his death on April 17, 1993.
The years between the 1991 elections and Özal's death Ö zal usurped powers unknown to previous presidents and Demirel scrambled to keep up. Though outwardly relaxed and easy-going, Özal the politician was a powerhouse of activity. He "mesmerized members of Turkey's parliament with phone calls to win approval for his hasty decisions," according to David Lawday in U.S. News and World Report. Özal confirmed this perception, saying in Lawday's profile, "I operate by changing people's minds. My style is to move very fast … you have to move fast; otherwise, you lose everything while everyone is debating what to do."
The formula worked for Özal, though it involved incredible risks. One of his last and boldest foreign policy moves was to join with the United States and other NATO allies in their opposition to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Though Ö zal was careful not to provoke war with his neighbor by taking part directly in an invasion, he thrust Turkey into a major role in the conflict, first cutting off oil pipelines from Iraq and then allowing the United States and its allies to use Turkish air bases to launch attacks against Iraq. Özal saw Turkey as a key buffer between the Middle East and Europe, and while wishing to keep one foot in each world, he surmised that helping the United States would pay dividends.
Though Özal's popularity at home slipped to new lows as a result of this action, some dividends came. After Turkey lost billions of dollars in trade through the embargo, Saudi Arabia came forward with over a billion dollars in grants and loans, Japan committed more than $400 million, and the United States threw an extra $200 million on top of an existing $553 million package. Beyond these direct monetary contributions, Turkey's military was treated to an infusion of new hardware. Özal's biggest disappointment resulted from Europe's reluctance, despite Turkey's help, to proved politically turbulent, as O welcome the country into the European economic union. Observers concluded that discrimination against Turkey's Muslim heritage played a major role in this snub.
Despite his political unpopularity, Özal left Turkey changed forever. His government shattered regulations which inhibited trade and economic growth, his policies attracted new foreign investment and tourism, and his love of technology led to the extension of electricity and telephone wires throughout the entire country. These quick changes came at a price, however: Özal was never able to control galloping inflation.
Özal made no secret of his devotion to his Islamic faith, at once both legitimizing Turkey's heritage with new friends in the West and sidestepping extremist elements which resulted in religious fundamentalist states elsewhere in the region.
In the words of former ambassador, Morton I. Abramowitz, in a Foreign Policy article, the former president "helped change his country like no one since Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey." Even after death, therefore, Özal's impact will continue to remain profound.
Further Reading on Turgut Özal
Additional information on Turgut Özal and modern Turkey can be found in George Harris, Turkey Coping with Crisis (1985); Dankwart Rustow, Turkey: America's Forgotten Ally (1987); and Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey (1990).
More information about Turgut Özal's final years as president may be found in U.S. News and World Report (August 20, 1990 and July 29, 1991); the New York Times Magazine (November 18, 1990); Time (January 28, 1991; May 13, 1991; and November 4, 1991); Foreign Affairs (Spring, 1991); National Review (April 15, 1991); the New Republic (April 15, 1991); Business Week (April 22, 1991); and Foreign Policy (Summer, 1993).