The history of the republic has seen very few women have the opportunity to be involved in the decision making process, which probably explains the poor state of Turkish politics. Rahşan Ecevit, who passed away last week at the age of 97 was among that exceptional few. 

Born Zekiye Rahşan Aral in 1923, the same year as the founding of the Turkish Republic, she received a modernist elite education at American high school Robert College of Istanbul, where she first met her future husband and one day to be prime minister Bülent Ecevit.

After marrying in 1946, the couple lived in London and later in North Carolina, where Bülent Ecevit worked as part of the press and media teams of Turkey’s foreign missions. He was also a literary translator, from English and from Sanskrit to Turkish, and a poet himself, while Rahşan Ecevit, a painter and later a novelist, was fluent in English, rare (over)qualifications for a would be Turkish politician couple.

In the mid 1950s, the Ecevits settled in Ankara, where Bülent became involved in politics with the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Between 1961 and 1965, he served as the Minister of Labour, a time when the labour rights (the right to unionize, to strike, etc.) designed by the new constitution of 1961 were implemented. Already popular in the party and among the trade unions, Ecevit would in 1972 become the third chairman of the CHP after the legendary figures of Atatürk and İsmet İnönü.

A progressive first lady 

Ecevit brought many novelties to Turkish political life via a centre-left populist discourse blended with European social democracy. His political stance was influenced by Juan Peron, who ruled Argentine in the 1940s and 50s and for again a brief period in the early 1970s. Peronism is usually described as an amalgam of nationalism, labourism and populism. 

Similarly, “populist Ecevit” was the motto of the CHP of the 1970s. Peron’s legendary wife, Eva (a.k.a. Evita), was probably Rahşan Ecevit’s role-model in being politically active while at the side of her husband. As an enlightened woman of the republic at the top of the social pyramid, “Lady” Rahşan designed her image to represent the supposedly boundless opportunities that “national progress” opened up for the new generations of women, thus standing as a source of popular inspiration. Her counterpart of the time, Nazmiye Demirel, the wife of the leader of the centre right Justice Party (AP), Süleyman Demirel, was a housewife from a central Anatolian town; any comparison or competition in terms of republican ideals was out of question. 

Mrs Ecevit stood beside her husband throughout the 1970s, when the latter ruled the country at intervals for three terms. It was a decade of discontent, which witnessed the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus, which caused thousands of human casualties; followed by rising oil prices; an American trade embargo and economic crisis along with escalating political/ideological violence that accompanied the polarization of Turkish society.

The post-coup resurrection and the nationalist left

The military regime of 1980 closed down the CHP and imposed a lifetime ban from politics on Ecevit along with the other political leaders of the day. In these conditions, Rahşan took the stage in her own right and founded the Democratic Left Party (DSP) in 1985, under which banner former CHP cadres loyal to Ecevit united. Bülent Ecevit took over the position from his wife in 1987 following the lifting of his ban. Rahşan Ecevit maintained her active role inside the party as the deputy chair.

In the 1990s, the DSP championed the defence of the unitarian and secularist nation-state structure, stigmatizing the rising Islamist and Kurdish political movements. Ecevitism maintained its Kemalist stance to influence the rising wave of the “nationalist left”. Despite strong competition from the rebuilt CHP under Deniz Baykal’s leadership, the DSP managed to attract popular support of the secularist electorate.

Ecevit played an active role in the 28 February 1998 process, through which the pro-Islamist Welfare Party (RP) led coalition government was removed from office. He became the deputy prime minister in the transitional cabinets and DSP won a landslide victory in the 1999 elections escalating Ecevit to power after two decades in opposition.

A wasted second chance

Ecevit’s new term as prime minister also witnessed dramatic political events. Following his speech in 1999, a pro-Islamist woman deputy was escorted from the parliament for wearing a headscarf before being able to take her oath of office. Lady Rahşan vocally defended this act. In December 1999, Ecevit ordered a bloody operation against political prisoners protesting in gaols which led to 32 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Following this operation, Rahşan Ecevit proposed a partial amnesty which led to the release of some 30,000 convicts. The “Rahşan Amnesty” was blamed for a sudden increase in crime rates and Mrs. Ecevit herself would later say, “I wanted the amnesty for the poor but the murderers benefited from it”.  

It was during Ecevit’s term in power in the late 1990s that the leader of the outlawed PKK Abdullah Öcalan was captured abroad and brought to Turkey to be incarcerated on an island, while the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen fled the country. Having a curious relationship with Gülen, Ecevit is alleged to have helped the former’s escape to the US. Under Ecevit’s premiership, austerity measures were implemented following the economic crisis of 2001 and in November 2002, DSP-led government was routed at the polls by a landslide electoral victory of the pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Tayyip Erdoğan.

Replacing the husband: “Christian invasion”

Rahşan Ecevit served as DSP’s vice president until 2004 and – following her husband’s death in 2006 – she continued her involvement in nationalist-socialist politics. In 2010, she resigned from her party to endorse Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership of the CHP. Kılıçdaroğlu’s ascent was premised by the resignation of Baykal following a sex scandal, which was allegedly made public by the Gülenists.

An interesting feature of Rahşan Ecevit’s late life was her anti-Semitic and anti-Christian statements in 2005 and 2006. She criticized the steps taken by the government to join the European Union by saying “I am a Muslim,” and claimed that Turkish society was being Christianized. She pointed to the increasing Protestant missionary activities around the country and the increasing numbers of church buildings and apartments used as places of Protestant worship and propaganda. According to her, Turkey from Thrace in the west to Ardahan in the east was experiencing a non-Muslim foreign invasion. She also claimed Greeks were purchasing property on the Aegean coast to unite these settlements with Greece in the near future, while the Jews were buying land in the southeast Anatolia for the realization of the “greater Israel” project.

These comments triggered a wave of negative opinion against non-Muslim minorities and religious practices around the country and were criticised by Turkey’s Christian and Jewish community leaders. Despite the rejection of Ecevit’s accusations, a chain of murders targeting minorities took place. On 5 February 2005, Trabzon Catholic Church’s Pastor Adrea Santoro was stabbed to death. On 19 January 2007, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered by a gunman from Trabzon, and in April 2007 three protestant missionaries were tortured to death in Malatya by an ultra-nationalist gang.

The strange legacy of Mrs Ecevit

Despite being a novelist and a painter, Rahşan Ecevit’s name is mostly associated with politics. She was not merely the wife of a politician but a top politician in her own right, whose stance determined Turkish society’s fate at certain critical moments. With all its rights and wrongs, Mrs Ecevit’s legacy will occupy an exceptional place in Turkish public’s collective memory.