The former prime minister and president Turgut Ozal passed away on April 17, 1993. He is regarded as one of the conservative giants, who brought Turkish periphery to the centre.
Turkey is marking the 27th anniversary of its prominent leader Turgut Ozal, who died unexpectedly on April 17, drawing hundreds of thousands of ordinary Turks to his state-sanctioned funeral, which was attended by dignitaries from 72 countries.
Ozal’s moderate conservative politics and liberal approach to various issues ranging from the country’s economic management to diminishing the army’s powerful influence over the political system changed Turkey in unexpected ways, which came even after the country experienced a brutal military coup in 1980, wiping out all established parties.
“The state should serve the people. People are not meant to serve the state,” Ozal famously declared to summarise his main political philosophy, inspiring many other politicians including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who founded the AK Party with a similar philosophy to Ozal in 2001.
Ozal established the Motherland Party (Anavatan Party) in 1983 with members from different political affiliations including nationalist, religious-minded, liberal and some social democratic views, pulling a landslide general election victory in late 1983.
In 1987, the Motherland Party won another general election while its votes decreased.
But because he changed the country’s election system, placing a 10 percent threshold for parties’ representation at the parliament, the party was able to claim a majority, forming another government.
In 1989, he was elected to become the eighth president of Turkey, becoming the first ever civilian-origin politician to ascend to the top post. Since the founding of the Turkish Republic, all presidents of the country including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of Turkey, had come from military backgrounds.
Ozal was able to become the ultimate exception in Turkey’s political system, where the military had had a powerful sway for decades, wrestling democratic rule with military coups from time to time.
But he lived through existing tensions with the military.
In 1988, during his party’s congress, he faced with an assassination attempt, which was allegedly partially the work of the country’s military elites.
He luckily escaped from the assassination with light injuries.
But he saw his survival as a matter of fate saying: “I particularly want to emphasise that no one can take one’s life determined by Allah without his desire.
“We surrendered to his will.”
Ozal’s religiosity had always been one of the most essential dimensions of the extraordinary politician’s career.
Ozal was born in Turkey’s eastern province of Malatya in 1927 with half Kurdish ancestry, which he was not shy to share with the public unlike the previous top politicians, not seeing a taboo anymore.
He was also the first president born in the Republican period. All of the previous presidents were born during the Ottoman Empire period.
His father was a deeply religious man like his grandfather, who did not like much the earlier strictly secular and biased Republican narrative about the Ottomans, the predecessor state of Turkey.
On one of the occasions, Ozal spoke about his grandfather’s stance regarding one of the Ottoman Empire’s late sultans, Abdulhamit II, who was labelled by early Republic history books as “the Red Sultan” to describe him as a cruel leader.
“I was reading the history book, which describes Abdulhamit II as ‘the Red Sultan’, and he was listening to it. Finally, he told me that ‘All of these talks are a bunch of lies. They are teaching you guys wrong things.’ I contrasted him saying that how you could know better than the book,” Ozal said in a speech when he was leading the country.
But after he went to the US in 1950s and later in 1970s to pursue further his education following his graduation from the faculty of electrical engineering at Istanbul Technical University, one of the oldest educational institutions, going back to the Ottoman period, he had a chance to read other books in English about the life and legacy of Abdulhamit II.
Eventually, he concluded that not the early Republican textbooks but his “grandfather was right”.
“I was left to ask myself that how wrong was this kind of teaching of history,” the unorthodox politician said.
As a result, he approached the Ottoman past differently from many of his predecessors after he came to power, pursuing restless politics some wanted to call “Neo-Ottomanism” to increase Turkey’s influence in former Ottoman regions from the Balkans to Caucasia and the Middle East.
Erdogan, who also defended expanding Turkish influence across the board, has seen a lot of similarities between his political approach and Ozal’s, praising the former president’s accomplishments.
“The late Turgut Ozal had played a leading role in the development and progress of our country, gaining a special place in the heart of the nation,” Erdogan said last year, commemorating the death of the former Turkish leader.
Ozal was also part of the religiously-minded Milli Gorus (National View) movement, which has left a deep mark on Turkish politics since the late 1960s, establishing several parties to defend conservative politics by emphasising a need for continuity between the Ottoman past and the Republican present.
Necmettin Erbakan, the founder and leader of the movement, was a follower of Mehmed Zahid Kotku, the leader of the Iskenderpasa community, which is a branch of the worldwide Naqshbandi sufi order, leading many of these parties until late 1990s. Both Ozal and Erdogan were once part of the movement under Erbakan.
Ozal’s economic policy
Ozal defended liberalisation of the Turkish economy by opening it to the outside world and intensive privatisation of some public sectors, which had met with some criticism, putting him at odds with some powerful union leaders and pro-worker politicians.
In the Ozal years, the Turkish inflation was very high, hitting two-digit numbers for most of the time, making low-wage families suffer.
Despite the criticism of his economic policy, Ozal had extensive knowledge and experience in economics, having worked for the country’s prestigious State Planning Organisation (Devlet Planlama Teskilati: DPT). He also worked for the World Bank in the US between 1971 and 1973, developing his English-language skills.
During the mid 1970s, Ozal also worked for various private companies including Sabanci Holding, increasing his experience further. In 1979, he became an undersecretary to the late Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, who would later become his political nemesis in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Under Demirel, he was instrumental in developing the much criticised 24 January Decisions, large economic reforms which paved the way for the country’s financial liberalisation.
While his economic policies met harsh criticism at the time, since then many have credited him for fuelling Turkish economic growth.
Ozal’s suspicious death
Ozal suddenly died in 1993 when he was the president.
Ozal’s death appears to have happened in suspicious circumstances. A post-burial autopsy conducted over his exhumed body in late 2012 showed that it had poison, but the report stayed short saying that this is what killed the late president.
His family members claim that Ozal passed away as a result of poisoning.
But according to his official death report, the former president died because of the heart attack.