Born May 28, 1925, in Istanbul, Turkey; died of cir-culatory and respiratory failure, November 5, 2006, in Ankara, Turkey. Politician. Bulent Ecevit was one of modern Turkey’s most estimable political leaders, a five-time prime minister who was firmly committed to the state secularism established after the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s. A journalist, translator, poet, and essayist who had spent time in both England and the United States early in his career, Ecevit once opposed Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, but later reversed his position, asserting “there can be no Europe without Turkey and no Turkey without Europe,” according to New York Times obituary by Stephen Kinzer.
An only child, Ecevit was born in Turkey’s main city, Istanbul, in 1925, to a mother who was one of the first woman in Turkey to earn a living as an artist. The Ecevits were firmly entrenched members of Turkey’s secular middle class, who helped bring World War I hero Kemal Ataturk to power in a bid to eradicate Ottoman rule, which stretched back several centuries. Young, educated Turks like Ecevit’s parents—his father was a physician—were followers of Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (RPP), and the senior Ecevit was elected to the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) on its ticket.
Ecevit was schooled at Robert College, an English-language academy in Istanbul, and studied in Ankara before departing for England, where he served as the press liaison at the Turkish Embassy in London from 1946 to 1950 while taking courses in Sanskrit and art history at the University of London. He worked as a journalist in Turkey before traveling to the United States in 1954 on a fellowship awarded by the U.S. State Department for a position with a North Carolina newspaper, the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel. His final byline for the newspaper offered his thoughts on the entrenched racism he witnessed in parts of the South during his reporting, and in that article he wondered how it came to be that the United States had become such an able defender of downtrodden peoples elsewhere in the world, while in places like Winston-Salem its white citizenry was “guilty of refusing to drink from the same fountain as the man who has fought on the same front for the same cause,” he wrote, according to Kinzer’s New York Times article.
Ecevit also spent time at Harvard University, and upon his return ran for and won a seat in the TGNA in 1957. He lost the seat after a 1960 military coup, but then served in a constituent assembly after that, and became labor minister for the country in 1961. He rose within RPP ranks, but after another military coup in the early 1970s surprised many when he led his own internal party coup against the RPP leader and his longtime political mentor, General Is-met Inonu, and then broke all party ties with the military. When elections were held in 1974, Ecevit became the first leftist politician ever to lead Turkey as prime minister.
Ecevit’s brief first stint as prime minister was notable, however, for his decision to invade the Mediterranean island of Cyprus that July, which provoked a strong international response. Cyprus was largely Greek, but there was a sizable Turkish minority, and when the centuries-old animosity between the two powers flared up again with Greece’s attempt to unite the island with the Greek mainland, Turkey sent troops; United Nations diplomats were still trying to resolve the issue when Ecevit passed away 32 years later.
Ecevit returned to office as prime minister in 1977 and for a third time in 1978, but massive internal unrest eventually forced him out; the instability intensified, however, and following another military coup in September of 1980 Ecevit and his wife, along with another leading Turkish politician and his wife, were detained by the army at a resort area. House arrest followed, and Ecevit was jailed for three months for an article he penned that criticized the junta (a group of military officers who have taken control of a country following a coup d’état), and finally in 1982 he and several other longtime politicians were banned from all political activities for a ten-year period. He formed the Democratic Left Party (DLP), and placed his wife in charge of it in order to subvert the law, which was overturned by national referendum vote in 1987. Ecevit returned to his TGNA seat in 1991, and became prime minister a fifth and final time in 1999 after financial corruption scandals rocked the political landscape. He stepped down in 2002 after November elections brought an Islamist group, the Justice and Development Party, to power.
Throughout his career Ecevit was known as a reformer and a politician with an admirable record as a human-rights advocate, except for his stance on Turkey’s minority Kurd population. He published several books of poetry and political science, and lived in a modest apartment in a suburb of Ankara, the capital. After a stroke in May of 2006 he sank into a coma, and never recovered. He died in Ankara on November 5, 2006, of circulatory and respiratory failure, at the age of 81. He is survived by his wife, Rahsan, whom he married in 1946. Crowds of mourners gathered outside the hospital upon news of his death, which prompted an outpouring of official tributes. “Turkey lost a political philosopher,” a CNN report quoted a former TGNA president, Husamettin Cindoruk, as saying. “He created a rhythm for the left, gave it color, and always worked to create political parties with concept, thought and philosophy.” Sources: Chicago Tribune, November 6, 2006, sec. 1, p. 13; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/europe/11/06/ecevit.obit/index.html (November 6, 2006); Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2006, p. B13; New York Times, November 6, 2006, p. A21; Times (London), November 7, 2006, p. 65; Washington Post, November 6, 2006, p. B6.