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Obituary: Bulent Ecevit

Bulent Ecevit
Bulent Ecevit: Turkey's political survivor
When 40,000 Turkish troops landed on the island of Cyprus in July 1974, governments across the world condemned both the invasion and the man who ordered it, Turkey's prime minister Bulent Ecevit.

The resulting refugee crisis, with 180,000 Greek Cypriots being made homeless as the Turks seized the northern part of the island, brought international bitterness and a long-lasting cold war between Greece and Turkey.

Born in Istanbul in May 1925, Bulent Ecevit graduated in literature from Istanbul's Robert College. A class yearbook description noted that "a cup of tea, a piece of paper, a pencil and a poetry book are the most faithful friends of Bulent".

But the mystical boy had a political brain, too. Serving as a government press officer during the late 1940s, he was seconded to the Turkish embassy in London.

During this period, which he later described as one of the happiest times of his life, Mr Ecevit studied art history and Sanskrit at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Kemal Ataturk
Kemal Ataturk: The "father of all Turks"
Returning to Turkey, he joined the reformist Republican People's Party (RPP), founded by the father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk and, in 1957 he became the youngest member of the Turkish parliament.

After serving as minister of labour in a government headed by his political patron, the RPP's Ismet Inonu, he became secretary general of the RPP in 1966.

But the early 1970s were a time of political strife in Turkey. Mr Ecevit, on the left of the RPP, denounced the imposition of martial law in March 1971, calling the army's action merely a "more sophisticated version" of the coup which brought the colonels' junta into power in Greece in 1967.

Tensions with Greeks

When Mr Inonu supported a government imposed by the military, Mr Ecevit resigned from the post of RPP secretary general to fight his corner from within the party's central committee.

After defeating the then 87 year-old Inonu in May 1972, Mr Ecevit became party chairman, the third person to hold the post after Ataturk and Mr Inonu himself, and, two years later, Turkey's prime minister, in coalition with the islamist National Salvation Party.

Abdullah Ocalan
Abdullah Ocalan: Ecevit orchestrated his arrest
Though he talked of a "strong latent affinity between Turks and Greeks", tension between the two neighbours was growing.

Stalled negotiations over oil rights in the Aegean, one source of friction, melted into irrelevance in June 1974 when the Cypriot national guard, acting on the orders of the military junta which then ruled Greece, ousted Archbishop Makarios's government.

Thousands of Turkish Cypriots had already in the 1960s sought refuge in enclaves, displaced by clashes with Greek Cypriots.

Pushed too far, as he saw it, Mr Ecevit ordered the invasion of Cyprus, in response to the Greek-inspired coup and to prevent any possible further violence against Turkish Cypriots.

Hailed by many fellow Turks as the "second Ataturk", the spectacular success of the invasion failed to unite his government and he resigned the premiership in September 1974.

Thereafter, Mr Ecevit's political career was a rollercoaster. Though he served as prime minister for two brief periods during the late 1970s, he was also imprisoned by the military following coups in the early 1980s.

In 1980, he stepped down as chairman of the RPP refusing, as he said, to be "bound by the curbs imposed by soldiers on party leaders".

Banned from politics for 10 years, Mr Ecevit's reputation as a moderate elder statesman grew and he remained a central figure in Turkish political life well into the 1990s.

Unexpected return

It was then that the unexpected occurred. Faced with a grave financial crisis, Mr Ecevit was re-elected prime minister in 1999 by a nation hungry for stability.

Voting in the 1999 general election
Voting in the 1999 general election
Initially, things went well. Ecevit presided over the capture of Kurdish rebel Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.

But his fifth and final period in office was marred by an all-too-public row with the country's president Ahmet Necdet Sezer, whom he accused of being soft on corruption.

In a hair-raising week in February 2001, the Turkish lira lost a quarter of its value and the International Monetary Fund was called in to rescued the tattered and ailing economy.

Mr Ecevit's own health was failing, too, but the veteran politician resisted pressure to stand down, only to see his party suffer a shock defeat in the polls in 2002.

Mr Ecevit suffered a massive stroke just a week shy of his 81st birthday in May. Politically active to the end, he was last seen in public at a mass street rally to support Turkey's secular regime, and protest at what he saw as a threat from the pro-Islamist government that succeeded him

Bulent Ecevit was the great survivor of Turkish politics. A bookish politician, who translated TS Eliot's The Cocktail Party into Turkish, nevertheless he possessed a ruthless streak and an instinctive sense of political survival.


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