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Turkish sorrow at Ecevit death

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ANKARA, Turkey (CNN) -- Bulent Ecevit, the Turkish politician, poet and journalist whose career spanned nearly half a century, has died aged 81.

Ecevit died on Sunday night in a military hospital in Ankara, where he had been in a coma since suffering a stroke on May 18, the hospital said in a written statement. His lungs collapsed, it said.

Soon after the news was made public, thousands of mourners gathered outside the hospital in a show of grief over the death of the former prime minister and former member of Turkey's Parliament whose secularist leanings and intellect helped shape his country's politics.

Others expressed their sorrow in writing. "He has always been an exemplary personality of our political history," said President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. "During his lifelong service to the country, he has put ethical values ahead of all other duties ... he has gained a respectful place in the hearts of our nation."

"It is a very sad day," said former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem. "But I have one comfort in knowing that he achieved and realized most of his political goals he set out in his political life. He contributed to the strength of the left, and its acceptance by large groups, and for Turkey's advancement."

"In Turkey, he was the last leader whose name is associated with hope," said Ridvan Akar, a Turkish journalist. "His name was written on the mountains and rocks for hope. It is a giant loss. He made us understand honesty, respectability, honor and modesty. With his passing, the era of honesty, honor and modesty is closed now. I knew him as a human being and a leader."

"We lost a giant from our political life who had very high ethical values, and an unforgettable guardian of our democracy and our secular republic," said former Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin. "He put respect for Turkey above everything. It is a giant loss, especially when we think about what is happening with secularism ... he never wavered in his stand for it."

Former Foreign Minister Ismet Sezgin described Ecevit's passing as the loss "of a democracy legend ... a giant child, an artist, a man of many hearts."

Bitter defeat

Born in 1925, the son of a medical professor who was himself a poet and a member of Parliament; his mother was an artist.

In 1946, he married his classmate, Rahsan Ecevit, who would work him throughout his political life.

That year, he worked as a press officer in the Turkish Embassy in London, and continued as a journalist until 1957, when he became the youngest member of Parliament.

By 1972, he became prime minister, the first left-winger to achieve the position. It was a post he was to win four more times, until he met his final bitter defeat in 2002.

"He was a great thinker," said Hadi Sekura, of Chatham House, a London-based organization for the analysis of international issues.

"He was a strong social democrat. At the same time, he was a very, very strong nationalist, which appealed very much to Turkey's sensibilities and political inclinations."

At home, Ecevit was responsible for authorizing trade unions and giving workers the right to strike.

Later, came social reforms like making the divorce laws more equitable. And constitutional changes, like banning the death penalty. That move spared the life of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party -- a militant separatist movement accused of staging cross-border attacks from Iraq into Turkey -- who was hunted down in Kenya and returned to Turkey for trial during one of Ecevit's terms in office.

It was Ecevit who started to pave the way for eventual Turkish entry into the European Community, making this claim at the Helsinki summit in 1999:

"This candidacy and in due time full membership to the EU is Turkey's birthright -- by virtue of Turkey's historical development, its geography and its present-day attributes."

Though the dove of peace was the symbol of Ecevit's party, he authorized Turkey's invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, when Turkish Cypriots feared a Greek military coup. It was an action that has left Cyprus divided to this day, but Ecevit had no second thoughts.

"Turkey lost a political philosopher," said Husamettin Cindoruk, former president of Parliament. "We will never forget his honesty, his deep experience and his decisions about Cyprus ... he created a rhythm for the left, gave it color and always worked to create political parties with concept, thought and philosophy; he was a leader for politicians with concept."

"He never had any regrets," Sekura said. "He was always a staunch nationalist until the last days of his life."

Ecevit, a short, slight man whose big spectacles, fierce mustache and ever-present blue cap made him instantly recognizable, was always a strong secularist. His last public appearance was at the funeral of a judge apparently killed for upholding the ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves. But his long survival reflected political realism too.

But Sekura said Ecevit showed himself willing to compromise his secularist values. "In the 1970s, he organized a political coalition with the Islamic National Salvation Party which brought him into power in 1974," he said. "So, on the one hand he was a strong secularist, but in political terms he was willing to do compromises to get into government."

In the end, with his health failing and the Turkish economy having to call in the International Monetary Fund, he may have stayed on too long.

Coalition bickering over the economic crisis finished Ecevit and his party, but not before he had authorized an economic reform program that has boosted Turkey's hopes of one day achieving EU membership.

CNN's Robin Oakley and Talia Kayali contributed to this story from London and Atlanta.

Former Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit seen here speaking to media in May 2005.

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