Early life and career
Turgut Özal was born in Malatya. His mother was of Kurdish descent. He completed elementary school in Silifke, middle school in Mardin, and high school in Kayseri. Özal studied electrical engineering at Istanbul Technical University, graduating in 1950.
Between 1950 and 1952, he worked at the State Electrical Power Planning Administration and continued his studies in the United States on electrical energy and engineering management between 1952 and 1953. After his return to Turkey, he worked in the same organization again on electrification projects until 1958. Özal was in the State Planning Organization in 1959, and in the Planning Coordination Department in 1960. After his military service in 1961, he worked at several state organizations in leading positions and lectured at ODTÜ (Middle East Technical University). The World Bank employed him between 1971 and 1973. Then, he was chairman of some private Turkish companies until 1979. Back to the state service, he was undersecretary to Turkish Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel until the military coup on 12 September 1980.
The military junta under Kenan Evren appointed him state minister and deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs until July 1982.
Prime Ministry era (1983–1989
On 20 May 1983 he founded the Motherland Party (Turkish: Anavatan Partisi) and became its leader. His party won the elections and he formed the government to become the 19th Prime minister on 13 December 1983. In 1987 he again became prime minister after winning elections.
He became the head of the transformation of the social and economic outlook of Turkey which led by the Motherland Party due to the wider global trend of neoliberal transformation with anti-labor-union discourses.
Turgut Özal and Felipe González at Moncloa Palace, September 1989.
On 18 June 1988 he survived an assassination attempt during the party congress. One bullet wounded his finger while another bullet missed his head. The assassin, Kartal Demirağ, was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment but pardoned by Özal in 1992. Demirağ was allegedly a Counter-Guerrilla, contracted by the movement's hawkish leader, General Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu. Two months later, Yirmibeşoğlu became the Secretary-General of the National Security Council. During Yirmibeşoğlu's tenure as secretary general, Özal heard about the allegations of Yirmibeşoğlu's role in the affair and forced him into retirement. In late 2008, Demirağ was re-tried by the Ankara 11th Heavy Penal Court and sentenced to twenty years in prison. In 2013 Özal's son Ahmet Özal said that several months before the assassination attempt Özal had survived a plane incident in which his official plane lost an engine and crash-landed. The manufacturer later reported a 95% probability that the plane would have exploded under the circumstances present.
Turgut Özal and George Bush in Istanbul, July 1991.
On 9 November 1989, Özal became the eighth President of Turkey elected by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey and the first president to be born in the Republic of Turkey rather than the Ottoman Empire.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Özal made an effort to found alliances with the Turkic countries of Central Asia as well as Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus. He was also a keen proponent of the country's rapprochement with the Middle East and the Muslim countries. Ozal was very supportive of the Gulf War, urging President George H. W. Bush to go to war with Ba'athist Iraq, with which Turkey shared a border. He said that Saddam Hussein must go and called him more dangerous than Gaddafi.
Özal's free market instinct perhaps defined some of his greatest achievements - the opening up of the Turkish economy. At a stroke, capital controls were abolished - Turks could take out or bring in whatever declared foreign currency they wished. He also liberalized the foreign exchange regime and embarked on one of the most aggressive and ambitious export-driven policies anywhere in post-war history.
The watchword of this campaign was Export-or-Die. Turkish contractors such as Kutlutaş, Enka, STFA and Tekfen, to name but a few, alone amassed 20 billion worth of contracts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Libyan markets in the 1980-1990 decade.
President Turgut Özal agreed to negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Apart from Özal, himself half-Kurdish, few Turkish politicians were interested, nor was more than a part of the PKK itself. A first round occurred in the early 90s, and led to a cease-fire declaration by the PKK on 20 March 1993. After the president's death on 17 April 1993, in suspicious circumstances, the hope of reconciliation evaporated, and the Castle Plan, which Özal had opposed, was enacted. Some journalists and politicians maintain that Özal's death was part of a covert military coup in 1993 aimed at stopping the peace plans.
Özal had a firm vision of a Turkey straddling as a bridge between Asia and Europe - a modern and scientific Turkey. He strongly believed that Islam is compatible with democracy and accountability, and that a Muslim country can also be modern, scientific and progressive.
The ceremony marking of the beginning of governance for the first Kaymakam Eyüp Sabri Kartal in Kavaklıdere, with President Turgut Özal and Vali Lale Aytaman, August 1991.
The Armenian genocide
The issue of the Armenian genocide was part of Özal's agenda because he came to believe that Turkey's ongoing denial policy harmed his country's international relations. He wanted to reach an agreement with the Armenians and solve the problem as soon as possible by making compromises. The reason for this was his first confrontation with the topic of the genocide in the 1950s while he was still studying in the United States. Özal noticed an emerging Armenian lobby which aimed to introduce the recognition of the Armenian Genocide on the political agenda in the United States.
When he became prime minister in 1983, the Armenian issue was one of the topics on his agenda. However, he faced tough challenges as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) intensified its attacks on Turkish diplomats abroad in the early 1980s. The ASALA factor made it very difficult to take any bold steps in domestic politics with respect to bridging the gap between Turks and Armenians. Behind closed doors, Özal defended the idea of holding negotiations with Armenians to settle a dispute that has had great potential to deal a serious blow to Turkish interests in international politics.
In 1984, Özal tasked his advisers to work out different scenarios of the political and economic costs that Turkey would have to incur if it would agree to compromise with the Armenian diaspora and recognize the Genocide. In 1991, after a meeting with representatives of the Armenian community, Özal said in front of journalists and diplomats:
What happens if we compromise with the Armenians and end this issue? What if we officially recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide and face up to our past? Let's take the initiative and find the truth. Let's pay the political and economic price, if necessary.
Özal tried to implement several projects, including the Van project, as part of his solution to the Genocide issue. The Van Project envisioned the return of some lands to Armenians in Van. However, Özal was unable to make concrete progress because his policies sparked criticism and fury among the Turkish public, the Motherland Party, and the Turkish military as they considered the idea of negotiating with the Armenian diaspora itself as unacceptable and unthinkable. After Özal's death, his policies of compromising with the Armenians in order to solve the conflict concerning the Armenian genocide were abandoned.
Death and exhumation
On 17 April 1993 Özal died of a suspicious heart attack while still in office, leading some to suspect an assassination. Özal had first become ill a month earlier.
He died just before he had the chance to negotiate with the Kurdish rebel organization, the PKK. His wife Semra Özal claimed he had been poisoned by lemonade and she questioned the lack of an autopsy. The blood samples taken to determine cause of death were lost or disposed of. Özal had sought to create a Turkic union, and had obtained the commitment of several presidents of the newly independent Turkic states from the former Soviet Union. His wife Semra alleged that the perpetrator might have wanted to foil the plan.
Hundreds of thousands of people attended the state burial ceremony in Istanbul, in which Özal was buried next to the mausoleum of Adnan Menderes. Among those attending were dignitaries of 72 countries, including several heads of state and government, such as Greek Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, German President Richard von Weizsäcker, and Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey attended the funeral, as well as former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.
On the fourteenth anniversary of his death, thousands gathered in Ankara in commemoration. Investigators wanted to exhume the body to examine it for poisoning. In September 2012, a court ruled that the grave be opened for another autopsy. On 3 October 2012 his body was exhumed. It contained the banned insecticide DDT at ten times the normal level. According to press reports, the partially embalmed remains were found to be well preserved, much to the experts' and public's surprise. It is reported that while the lower half of the body was subject to skeletonization, the upper half was preserved due to adipocere.
An autopsy report issued on 12 December 2012 stated his body contained poison but the cause of death was unclear. A trial charging retired general Levent Ersöz with his murder began in September 2013 who eventually was cleared of all charges.
Family and personal life
With his wife Semra, Özal had two sons, and a daughter. One of their sons, Ahmet Özal, was elected to parliament after the elections of 1999, but stayed out after the elections of 2002. He was a member of a powerful Islamic sect in Turkey, Community of İskenderpaşa, which is also a Turkish branch of the Naqshbandi tariqah.