Former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, a political force in Turkey for almost half a century who ordered the invasion of Cyprus and later pushed his country toward the West, died Sunday. He was 81.
Ecevit died at Ankara’s GATA military hospital after nearly six months in a coma following a stroke, the hospital said in a statement, citing circulatory and respiratory problems as causes of his death.
He started his political career in 1957 as a staunchly left-wing lawmaker, but later became an American ally, a transformation that mirrored changes in his country which has gone from a largely insular nation to one that is increasingly opening to the West.
Under Ecevit’s leadership, Turkey was accepted as a candidate for membership in the European Union in 1999. He supported U.S. use of a Turkish air base for flights over northern Iraq in the years before the first and second Iraq wars and agreed to sell off key state companies to private investors.
Ecevit, who served five times as premier and was imprisoned following a 1980 military coup, ordered the 1974 invasion of Cyprus that led to the division of the Mediterranean island. He was in power during the 1999 capture of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan.
President Ahmet Necdet Sezer issued a statement praising Ecevit for his political ethics, manners and intellect, and for upholding Turkey’s secular values.
“The Turkish people will always respectfully remember his services to the country,” Sezer said.
Worked as journalist
A published poet and former journalist, Ecevit was born in Istanbul in May 1925. He was educated at an American high school in Istanbul where he met his wife, Rahsan, a painter, who would become his closest aide and political ally.
He worked as a journalist in the 1950s with a newspaper close to the left-of-center Republican People’s Party and entered parliament with that party in 1957. He quickly rose within party ranks and took over the leadership in 1972.
He was in and out of power as prime minister four times during the years before the 1980 military coup, a time marred by a deep economic crisis and violent street clashes between leftists and right-wing militants.
During his political comeback in the late 1990s, Ecevit — then in his 70s — abandoned his earlier nationalist rhetoric and backed Turkish moves toward a free-market economy, supported its bid to join the European Union and reconciled with the U.S.
Pushed by the International Monetary Fund, he also embarked on an ambitious privatization program in those years, agreeing, for example, to the sale of the telecommunications monopoly, Turk Telekom, and Turkish Airlines.
In 2002, after three years in power, Ecevit’s party suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s populist, Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, knocking him from power.
Ecevit is survived by his wife. The couple did not have any children.