Turkey: Former pro-Islamic prime minister dies

Necmettin Erbakan, a longtime leader of Turkey's Islamic political movement and briefly the country's prime minister in the first Islamic-led coalition in Turkey's modern history — died on Sunday. He was 85.

Erbakan was the leader of the Felicity Party and was working on the party's election strategy ahead of elections in June despite his deteriorating health, Recai Kutan, a close confidant, said outside the Guven hospital. Doctors said Erbakan died of heart failure. He was also suffering from respiratory problems and a chronic vein infection in his left leg, doctors said.

Erbakan, a professor of mechanics, was affectionately known as Hodja — or teacher — by his followers as well as current and former members of his now-banned Welfare Party — including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul.

"We will always remember him with gratitude as a teacher and a leader," Erdogan said Sunday.

Erbakan served only a year as prime minister before he was pressured by the secular military to step down in 1997. His Welfare Party was shut down by the Constitutional Court for undermining secularism — which led to the birth of the country's now ruling Justice and Development Party as well as several small pro-Islamic parties.

Erdogan who favors the country's membership in the European Union and maintains ties with the West while building closer ties with Muslim countries, is moderate compared with Erbakan — who made his first trips to Iran and to Libya to meet Moammar Gadhafi in 1996 and maintained a firm anti-Israel stance, setting in motion a conflict with the powerful military that led to his eventual ouster from power.

Erbakan was first elected to parliament as an independent lawmaker in 1969 and laid the seeds of the country's political Islamic movement. As well as his year as prime minister, he also served as deputy prime minister in several coalitions in the 1970s.

He set up five political parties, four of which were closed down following military coups or by courts on grounds of undermining secular principles of this predominantly Muslim country.

Turkey's military sees itself as the guardian of Turkey's secular traditions, and Erbakan had alarmed the generals with his moves to allow female civil servants to wear Islamic attire at work and to rearrange working hours to fit fasting times in the holy month of Ramadan.

Erbakan resigned in June 1997 to appease the military, which has staged three coups since 1960.

Later he was barred from politics for five years and also convicted of falsifying party records and hiding millions in cash reserves ordered seized after his party's closure in 1998. He was elected as the head of Felicity Party as soon as his political ban ended in 2003.

Though Welfare had won 21 percent of the votes in 1995, the Felicity Party was expected to win only a tiny percentage of votes in the upcoming elections. However, the leader of another small pro-Islamic party signaled a possible alliance Sunday.

"We were last talking about a possible cooperation in the elections," Abdullah Latif Sener, leader of the Turkey Party, told reporters on Sunday. "We will follow his wish."

Erbakan will be buried in Istanbul following prayers at the Fatih Mosque on Tuesday, Kutan said.