Tag Archives: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

History of Military Coups in Turkey

The political system of every liberal democracy rests upon political parties that try to represent as large a part of a society as possible in any given setting. There are small elitist parties, there are large mass parties, parties based on strong ideological framework and parties deprived of any doctrinal foundation- so called issue party and catch all parties. Nonetheless, they all strive to assume the power to govern. It is questionable to what extent political parties can be perceived as legitimate representatives of society at large, yet along the lines of electoral democracy based on either majority or proportionate electoral system together with the principle of majority rule, political parties can be seen as legitimate advocates of their electoral base. At the same time, respect for rights of the minority, no matter how large or small, is another vital characteristic of a healthy democratic regime.  All this can be achieved by means of multi party political system, which is at the heart of any functioning democracy. As in the case of Turkey, the transition from a single party regime to a multi-party one took place at a relatively early stage of its political history, in this sense, giving it an upper hand in contrast to the vast majority of countries of the broader Middle East. Therefore, despite some weaknesses, political parties in Turkey have proven a relatively high degree of organizational strength, complexity and continuity.

According to Jacob Landau, transition to multiparty politics signified as ‘perhaps the most momentous decision affecting Turkish domestic politics in the post-Ataturk period’. As any major decision has both internal and external causes, the introduction of democratic politics was an outcome of internal developments as well as Western pressure. ‘Wealth Tax’, ‘Soil Products Tax’, ‘National Defense Law’, high inflation among others undermined the influence of Republican People’s Party (CHP). Yet, the disagreement on ‘Land Reform Law’ and further rejection of petition for democratization of political life in Turkey caused the resignation of some prominent members from the CHP. On the other side, faced with the Soviet threat to take control of the Straits, Turkey’s only alternative was to ‘make friends with the West’. Despite the more conservative opposition, President Inonu declared on November 1st 1945 the need for an opposition party and an election was scheduled for 1947, in which more than 20 new parties would try to appeal to the mostly traditionalist electorate, therefore Islamic principles were emphasized in their programs.

The following turning point was the establishment of the Democrat Party (DP), on January 7th 1946 under the leadership of Celal Bayar, and having as members the MPs who opposed the Land Reform Law was a valuable asset in order to position itself as the foremost opponent of CHP, thus becoming the driving force against its ‘elitist one party-rule’. In spite of the fact that elections were called earlier, it was clear DP was up to the challenge. Thus, CHP had to adjust by adherence to the critics and making major concessions. After DP joined the demands of the Nation Party (MP) for a greater role of Islam in public affair, CHP responded by a new policy which regarded religion as a necessity in daily life, just like food. Religion was introduced in primary schools; faculty of theology was opened in Ankara and Quranic courses were legalized, granting tremendous support to its main opposition- the religious traditionalist circles.

Another turning point was the elections of 1950, won by DP. Celal Bayal became President and Adnan Mendres – Prime Minister, ending the single-party regime and bringing the counter-elite into power, therefore it was natural for the DP to try to ‘separate CHP from the state’ in its promise to de-bureaucratize Turkey and liberalise religious practices. The latter gave DP an image of a pro-Islamic party. Using Islam as a means to achieve political ends became an issue. Nonetheless, relying on a booming economy and successful foreign policy, DP was re-elected with a landslide in 1954. However, it could not fulfill the promise of liberalization. On the contrary, in was becoming more authoritarian by limiting the freedom of speech and of the press, faced with criticism on both economical and political issues. Benefiting from the majority based electoral system, it retain its ‘monopoly’ of power after the 1957 elections. Yet, the worsening of the economy in the late ‘50s, as well as Islamic propaganda, coupled with attacks on Kemalist principles brought DP to demise.

A military coup toppled down the DP government on 27th of May 1960, setting a dangerous precedent for the years to come. Moreover, the cruelty with which the DP leaders were treated cast a legacy of callousness through other continuation-parties of the DP. Though military coups were nothing new to the Middle East of that time, the military returning to the barracks and civilian committee preparing a new Turkish Constitution was hardly an ordinary event. The constitution guaranteed basic rights and rule of law; adopted a more liberal approach to secularism, religion, individual and social rights; established a Senate and an independent Constitutional Court; at the same time, the military assured a special status for themselves within the system, so that they could easier influence and direct government policies by the means of National Security Council (NSC).

Officially, the coup was a retaliation to the attacks on the Kemalist principles, but it is very much agreed upon the idea that it was also a revisionist stand of the military-bureaucratic elite against those who wanted to ‘upset and destroy the legacy of Ataturk out of thirst of power’. In the same key, NSC, in its guarding of national interest and much of the Constitution as a whole, was meant as a safeguard from elected officials abusing the national will, thus undermining the key feature of democracy – fair representation of interests, ironically though, the majoritarian system was replaced with a proportional one in order to more adequately represent the public.

Fortunately, the ban on political activity was soon lifted. Two right parties were disputing the claim on being the continuation of the banned DP: Justice Party (AP) and New Turkey Party (YTP). The biggest beneficiary of this debate was CHP, under the leadership of Ismet Inonu it come to power after 11 years of opposition and to some extent the Republican Peasant’s Nationalist Party (CKMP) also benefited, getting 54 seats on a radical discourse in the 1961 elections. A series of coalition governments fell one after another. During that time, Suleyman Demirel emerged as a young and ambitious leader of the AP- ‘a mass party, meting particular interests into a nationalistic one’. Once again, CHP was in a position to adapt to its rival, by launching the ‘Our Ideal of a Progressive Turkey’. It also positioned itself as ‘Left of Center’. By insinuating a leftist/pro-Moscow orientation of CHP, which AP considered a thereat to the country’s unity, the dawn of ideological dimension in Turkish politics was witnessed in 1965.

The same year was noteworthy due to the second stepping down from power of CHP in favor of AP and the participation of a socialist Turkish Worker’s Party (TIP) in that election. The latter made other parties to more clearly identify themselves in ideological terms, thus boosting the ideological divide. This lead to radicalization among population, especially among students, as well as within the trade union movement and brought about the establishment of the Revolutionary Worker’s Organization (DISK). This triggered the radicalization of the right, which formed the ‘Society for Struggle against Communism’. On the center-right, a radical nationalist group was formed out of the former CKMP, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The stage was set for dangerous clashes that did not hesitate to occur. Polarization became a tragic reality, even more so, the government’s inability to solve or alleviate the issue brought a sense of despair. AP was viewed as the big industrialists’ party, whereas CHP could neither provide social justice nor more opportunity for democracy. The ‘two party democracy’ started to be challenged. Thus, the National Order Party (MNP) emerged as an alternative. Its leader, Necmettin Erbakan, explicitly criticized the secular nature of the republic and the Western concept of modernization project, offering a politicized version of Islam instead.

The year 1970 was marked by major protests, strikes, demonstrations, worker’s riots and clashes between various guerilla groups. The Demirel government could not handle the civil disobedience, therefore was faced with a memorandum, demanding ‘to end the anarchy and carry out reforms in a “Kemalist spirit” ’. The government could not fulfill the demands imposed by the military on March 12th 1971; therefore it resigned in favor of a technocrat board. Under the Martial Law, left and right organizations were closed, freedom of press curtailed, while the Parliament was not banned as in previous case. TIP and MNP were closed, yet the political Islam agenda was soon encompassed by the new National Salvation Party (MSP). It positioned itself as ‘a national option’ in contrast to both CHP and AP, claiming to be the embodiment of morality. Its members were middle or upper middle class, well educated professionals mainly from the countryside, thus bearers of conservative outlooks. This ‘new elite’, yet with ‘old values’ represented a veritable counter force to the military bureaucratic one, leading to a duality of elites. It was obvious that a competition, yet more of a struggle were there to occur between the two in the quest for authority and power.

Instable coalitions, legitimacy crisis, 1973-1974 oil crisis, Cyprus intervention, deterioration relations with US frame the background of the ‘70s. However the most distinctive image of the period is the continuation of the left-right polarization. Violence and terror claimed over 4000 lives between ’76 and ’80. Still, another issue emerged that could overshadow the ideological divide: identity. Kurdish nationalist groups were trying to lead their own proletariat revolution. Among them, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came out as a galvanizing force and from the 1980s onwards it has been a constant issue in Turkish politics.

Another identity issue was that of heterodox Alevi. Their separate self-identification coupled with the logical support of the left spark off the resentment of radical rightists, resulting in numerous human casualties among the former. As it often happens, not being able to deal with a situation, government tries to concentrate the attention on other issues, claimed to me more important. The ’24 of January Decisions’ are a vivid example of that, but the new taxes, cut in subsidies only aggravated the problems and the society was implicitly calling for a military solution.

The 1980 coup was there as if scheduled. The explanation was the same: to serve and protect the state integrity, yet the means were novelty. In the best traditions of top-bottom social engineering, it was decided to depoliticize the population and restructure the ideology away from the left-right antagonism. This could be done only by the use of Islam. The idea was hardly a new one, but coming from the military was an innovation. The ‘Turkish-Islamic Synthesis’ stressed cultural values and principles, which were meant to peel away the “false Western veneer”. Parties were banned and latter dissolved in due course. Another ‘improvement’ was the ban on former senior party officials to re-enter political life for 10 years. It was the bitter lesson from the previous coups, when the same leaders were rising from the ashes like phoenix bird. Electoral system was adjusted to the needs of preventing small parties, which were perceived as more radical and easier to manipulate, from entering the Parliament, by setting a 10 percent threshold. NSC increased its role in terms of providing advice to the Council of Ministers on internal and external security matters, when 5 mail leaders of the coups were members of NSC.


Gen Evren launched his coup, Turkey’s third, in September 1980

The new Constitution was a retreat from democratic principles. It shaped a stronger state to avoid the anarchy and terror of the last decade, which was seen as a result of limiting the power of the state. It specifically tackled the Kurdish issue by harshly repressing any ideas supporting a separate Kurdish identity. The ban on use of Kurdish language was a continuation of this policy. Though state came to the forefront of political and social life at the expense of decreasing rights and freedoms, economically, liberalization policies were carried on.

Civilian politics resumed with the elections of November 6th 1983. The military designed this as a ‘sporting event’, by carefully selecting the ‘teams’. Continuations of CHP and AP were vetoed from the ‘contest’, allowing only the Nationalist Democracy Party (MDP)- founded by generals; Populist Party (HP)- encouraged by generals to channel the leftist votes; Motherland Party (ANAP)- had no grounds to be vetoed,  were granted ‘permission’.

In the best tradition of a sporting contest, the results were unpredictable. The military-backed MDP lost to the ‘brainchild of Ozal’- ANAP. The party claimed to represent the Orta Direk (the broader middle class, including parts of working class) and to have incorporated four political currents under its banner: liberal right, traditionalist right, nationalist right and democratic left. Though such a coalition of forces seems questionable, it was not impossible. Overall, ANAP represented an alternative to the anti-system Islamic discourse. Being a charismatic leader, pursuing a liberal economic policy, decentralizing the government, cutting the military influence and continuing the Turkish-Islamic synthesis as main state ideology kept Turgut Ozal and his party in power for the rest of the decade.

Kurdish and Islamic movements were still very much present. PKK was declared illegal because it adopted terrorist means. On the other side, Welfare Party (RP) was formed in 1983 as a continuation of Erbakan’s MSP. Despite both identities being represented in Ozal himself and his party, the two movements have developed a momentum of their own. In the face of liberal vs. conservative split within ANAP, coupled with society dissatisfaction over increasing income gap, Ozal bravely decided to hold a referendum on allowing the former leaders to reenter political arena.

True Path Party (DYP) was headed by Suleyman Demirel. Democratic Left Party (DSP) – leaded by Bulent Ecevit. Social Democrat Populist Party (SHP) – managed by Erdal Inonu. The SHP was especially successful in using a ‘squeezed lemon’ symbolizing population’s suffering. During ANAP years, a stronger public opinion was emerging due to more freedom of the press and expression. At the same time, Kurdish groups and their rivals- ultra-nationalists and Islamists were taking advantage of the technology and liberalization to disseminate their stance.

The year 1991 was a turning point for the humanity as a whole and for Turkey in particular. In the world, the Communist threat disappeared and in Turkey the ANAP rule was over. Ironically, ANAP’s economic policies were challenged on its social dimension. Demirel’s DYP took over the lead, but had to share power with Inonu’s SHP, which also brought Kurdish People’s Labor Party (HEP) into the Parliament in an election coalition. RP, as the only radical alternative to the system, was present as well, so both Kurdish and Islamic identities were there.

Through much of the ‘90s the polarization of the society increased along the lines of PKK vs. nationalists and Fundamental Islamists vs. Alevi. These developments were marked by rivalry, scandals and bloodshed. The more repressive was the PKK treatment by the government, the more support it was gaining from the population, creating a vicious circle of violence. At times Kurds were becoming alienated from PKK, refusing its methods of civilian killings, yet the inertia of the machinery and the keen support from outside kept the fire burning. The moderate Alevi had to suffer not from just mere lack of tolerance, but from shrewd force and brutality. The increasing financial power of the traditionalist ‘newcomers’ (MUSIAD) helped them establish their own separate infrastructure from media, coffeehouses to living quarters in strict Islamic style. In this light, the rise of RP was almost imperative, because the state ideology was strongly challenged when the demands of the periphery ware at their peak.

The municipal elections of 1994 gave RP a strong position, by winning over 28 city centers, including Istanbul and Ankara. Yet, the 1995 Parliament elections brought the real change, giving RP 158 seats in Parliament, a vivid improvement from only 62 in 1991. The joy and enthusiasm within Islamic circles was understandable. Moreover, Erbakan’s premiership was justified by having won the election. Even though, ANAP and DYP tried to avoid letting the Islamists take over, their coalitions was short lived. The transformation of DYP’s leader, Tansu Ciller from a “Republican Woman” to a “devoted Muslim” was symbolic of interest being higher than principle. The Mosque in Taksim, the headscarf issue brought Islam to the forefront of the political agenda. Ironically, improving relations with Israel, sacking of military personnel alleged with Islamists relations, was the exact opposite from what RP had promised in the campaign. In contrast, members of the party were engaged in much harsher defense of their program. The quest was taken to extremes, when the RP governor instigated at ‘injecting Shari’a on the secularists by force’ during Sincan incident in February 1997.

This could not have passed unnoticed. Therefore, the 28th February NSC meeting had to produce a significant change, which was later named as ‘post-modern coup’. Erbakan was compelled to sign the policies required by the military: increase of compulsory education to eight years, thus closing the Imam-Hatip schools; closing the private Quran courses; banning headscarves, long beards and religious caps in public. Even though, officially RP took a step backwards by accepting the militaries position, the republican-secular ideology was very much at odds with Islamic ideology and they struggled over who defines the public space and identity in Turkish politics.

RP was faced with a prohibition for being openly anti-secular. The former “republican woman” suggested taking the burden of premiership on her shoulders to ease the pressure upon Erbakan and the government as a whole. Demirel, though, was visionary in empowering Mesut Yilmaz of the ANAP to form the government, thus putting RP out of power and later the Constitutional Court banned it from politics for five years, but the members have already transfers to the new Virtue Party (FP) in order to perpetuate the Islamist policies.

The year 1999 was important in many aspects: military arguably won the war with PKK and captured its leader, Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya; CHP, surprisingly, was out of Parliament for the first time since its formation in 1923; the headscarf issue resurfaced when Merve Kavakci, a MP from FP, refused to take it off in Parliament. The defenders of the republic cancelled her MP status and terminated her Turkish citizenship, allegedly not being aware that she had received American citizenship by than. Despite the pro-system movement within FP, led by Recep Tayip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, the State Prosecutor opened the case for the closure of the party on the same grounds as its predecessor-RP. FP was closed in June 2001. Along the lines of partisan rebirth, the reformists founded Justice and Development Party (AKP) – under Recep Tayip Erdogan and traditionalists formed the Felicity Party (SP) – under Recai Kutan.

A coalition of DSP-ANAP-MHP elected Ahmed Necdet Sezer President, aiming at strengthening the rule of law. A historic decision to abolish death penalty was taken in accordance with EU legislation, which, on this issue, placed Turkey above the “embodiment of democracy- US”; the latter still deprives its citizens of life, despite being an advocate of human rights.

The 2002 elections could be considered another turning point in Turkish political life. For the first time in half a century, there was a two-party Parliament and a single party government. This showed how unstable Turkish political party system was. Major parties dropped drastically, while Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), gaining 40% in the Kurdish south-east, amounted to only 6.22 nation wide. This proved the electoral system was far from perfect, yet it stressed the limited inner-party democracies as well.

Thus, AKP democratically monopolized political power in Turkey. The military-bureaucratic elite felt threatened, though Erdogan promised not to use Islam as means of achieving political ends, but rather to position themselves like Christian Democrats in Europe. This is arguable in both empirical and ontological terms. Nonetheless, it could very well be a pro-system party if it manages to refrain from confrontation on secularism with the military-bureaucracy, which appears highly unlikely. Guided by the realist understanding, AKP can do what they have the power to do and the rest will have to accept it. The alternative to this is another escalation and anxiety among population increases due to a large number of people having been left unrepresented. Though this could hardly be considered undemocratic, since there are functioning two-party democracies where there is always a one-party government. The key here is to have government officials appoint on merit bases not along partisan affiliation.

Overall, Turkish political system has proved itself viable, despite its weaknesses. The long history of terror and cruel punishment, including hanging of political leaders, left its mark on the society. The psychological trauma inflicted to the electorate by killing popular leaders like Menderes, or banning of whole parties could have hardly produces a stable, conscious electorate. Internal affairs have been deeply entrenched in ideological divide, religious cleavage, identity struggle, coupled with increased interest from Global players, which results in a certain type of influence, the outcome might be as well described as a position of a torn country. It seams natural that people tend to regard the military as the most trustworthy institution in the country. Unfortunately, this is scarcely due to the military being so virtuous, but rather because of lack of a veritable alternative. In contrast, Islam appears to be another rescue place for many people.

Therefore, civil society, that does exist in Turkey as opposed to many Middle Eastern neighbors, will have to endure great scrutiny in its quest for democratization, because AKP appears to have its own agenda, which tends to disregard an influential part of the population. Taking into account its disillusion with the EU, lack of progress in solving or at least easing the polarization, the stage is set for another deadlock which might be triggered by an economic regress. Still, this period could be viewed as an opportunity for reconstruction and rethinking of where the country is going, but more importantly, what means are the antagonistic groups ready to use to achieve their goal. It would be unfortunate and sad if an end would continue to justify any means.

Note: This paper was written back in 2007 when I was an Erasmus student at Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara.


Turkish soldiers carry Turkish flags during a parade marking the 89th anniversary of Victory Day in Ankara August 30, 2011. REUTERS/Umit Bektas