All About Turkey

Military interventions in Turkey

Some analysts have suggested that among national institutions, only the armed forces retain the public trust and respect. Since the end of single-party rule in 1950, they have intervened directly three times in the country's politics. In each instance, civilian control was restored after a transition period during which purported problems were addressed, justice meted out, new constitutions adopted, and economic growth accomplished.

The 1960 Coup d'Etat

On 27 May 1960, General Cemal Gürsel led a coup d'etat that removed President Celal Bayar, prime minister Adnan Menderes, and his cabinet from power and dissolved the parliament. Several members of the Menderes government were charged with various crimes ranging from misuse of public funds to abrogation of the Constitution and high treason. Arraigned before a joint civilian - military tribunal, a number of those charged were sentenced to prison terms and former Premier Menderes was executed along with two other ministers.

The 1960 coup occurred against a backdrop of escalating tension between the government and opposition that threatened to erupt into civil war. First elected in 1950, Menderes built on the liberalization measures that followed Atatürk’s death in 1938, including a relaxation of laws that restricted the role of minorities and Islam. Confronted with strong Kemalist opposition, the government repeatedly passed legislation designed to restrict freedom of the press to print material "designed to damage the political or financial prestige of the state" or "belittling persons holding official positions". By 1959, growing hostilities between government and opposition supporters fuelled by a polarization of public opinion led to violent clashes. In April 1960, a series of large-scale student demonstrations paralyzed university campuses and led to bloody confrontations with police forces. The imposition of martial law in Istanbul and Ankara on 1st of May and the confinement of demonstrators in detention camps failed to restore civil order.

Although public unrest had been growing over the previous year, the trigger for the coup appears to have been the 1st of May decision to use the armed forces in an effort to regain control of the situation. While some senior officers supported the government, Istanbul's martial law commander announced that his troops were authorized to fire on "even the smallest public assembly" - others were not united behind this policy. One week after the declaration of martial law, the commander of land forces, General Gürsel, was placed on a compulsory leave of absence. In his farewell message, Gürsel urged his troops to steel themselves against the “greedy political atmosphere now blowing through the country." Such sentiments were clearly shared by others as well. Former President and Atatürk's colleague, Ismet Inönü, warned that "an oppressive regime can never be sure of the army".

In a 27 May broadcast, Cemal Gürsel rejected dictatorship and announced that the government had been overthrown to help establish an honest and just democratic order and to give over the administration of the state into the hands of the nation. In a press conference on 28 May, Gürsel emphasized that the "purpose and the aim of the coup is to bring the country with all speed to a fair, clean and solid democracy... I want to transfer power and the administration of the nation to the free choice of the people". That same day, the military-dominated cabinet issued a policy statement promising respect for human rights and the abolition of all laws contrary to the Kemalist tradition. The military dominated the political scene until October 1965. During that time, a series of conservative coalition government led by former President Inönü held office. When free elections were once again permitted, Süleyman Demirel led his Justice Party (Adalet Parti - AP) to victory. Demirel remained in office until the Turkish military forced his resignation in March 1971.

The 1971 Imposition of "Guided Democracy"

On 12 March 1971, the Demirel government was forced to resign after the commanders of the armed forces delivered an ultimatum to the President. Demanding a new government, Turkey's military leaders asserted the urgent need for a "strong and capable government" that could redress the "anarchical situation" in the country. A refusal to accept this demand, they warned, would result in the armed forces taking over the administration of the country.

The decision by the military high command to impose its will on the government followed three years of political violence and growing economic problems. As early as 1968, demonstrations had become so disorderly that Demirel warned “enemies of the state" that the government would not "allow the destroyers of the legitimate order to strangle democracy in the streets". In the following three years, both left- and right-wing violence paralyzed Turkish politics and coincided with the deterioration of the economy. Although the government pursued policies that fostered an annual growth rate of nearly 7%, a serious balance of payments deficit had nonetheless emerged. Devaluation of the national currency took place in August 1970, but efforts to redress the economic fall were undermined by chronic inflation (78 percent from 1963 to 1968). Violent demonstrations by leftist forces and trade unions opposed to the government's economic program began in June 1970 and led to the imposition of martial law in Istanbul.

The use of the armed forces to support an unpopular government was resisted by senior commanders. In July 1970, the air force commanders General Muhsin Batur, sent a memorandum to President Sunay advocating a program of socio- economic reforms and warning of the consequences if the government was unable to maintain public order. In late November 1970, Batur submitted a second memorandum that called for greater powers for the National Security Council and the convening of a constituent assembly. One month later, chief of the General Staff, General Memduh Tagmac, used his New Year's address to issue a strong warning to "all who may try to destroy the national integrity of the republican regime and Atatürk's reforms". "The armed forces," he stated, "whose mission is to protect the country against any danger from without or within, will smash any action directed against the country." Tagmac added that the drift to civil war could still be stopped "by the responsible constitutional bodies".

Despite these warnings, the government seemed unable or unwilling to restore order, and the first three months of 1971 were characterized by a series of murders, bombings of government buildings, and reports of a planned leftist insurrection. However, the trigger for the military's ultimatum appears to have been the kidnapping of four American servicemen on 4 March and the violent clashes between students and police. On 12 March, Tagmac and the three service commanders handed a memorandum to the President which declared that "Parliament and the Government, through their sustained policies, views and actions, have driven our country into anarchy, fratricidal strife, and social and economic unrest; made the public lose all hope of reaching a level of contemporary civilization, a goal set by Atatürk; failed to realize the reforms stipulated by the [1961] Constitution; and placed the future of the Turkish republic in grave danger". It concluded by asserting that a "strong and credible government" was needed to "neutralize the current anarchical situation" and restore the state. After Demirel's resignation, the President publicly thanked the High Command, declaring that it had acted responsibly and he urged all Turks to support the new government.

Instead of imposing direct rule in 1971, the military leaders saw their role as one of guiding the Turkish democratic process. Formed after consultations with the leaders of the major political parties, the new coalition cabinet governed with the support (and sufferance) of the armed forces. Suppressing violence, it implemented a sweeping set of socio-economic reforms similar to those urged by General Batur in his November 1970 memorandum. Furthermore, it introduced legislation to restrict those forces on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum that had advocated policies opposed to the spirit of Kemalism.

The 1980 Coup d’Etat

declaration of 1980 Coup d'EtatOn 12 September 1980, the newly elected government of Demirel was overthrown. Five days later, Chief of Staff General Kenan Evren declared that the military was responding to domestic political anarchy. He reinforced this message by laying out the new regime's program, which included civil order, national unity, and a secular state based on social justice and human rights. Planned months in advance, the coup was welcomed by most Turks as an answer to the preceding years of economic and political stagnation. The delay in overthrowing the government seemed to reinforce the claims of the Turkish military that they were sincere in their desire to prevent civil war and preserve the Kemalist republic.

This coup was a response to an unstable political situation that the elected government seemed powerless to remedy. Extremists on both sides of the political spectrum resorted to murder and other forms of violence. Prior to the coup, political leaders, rather than attempting to repress this antidemocratic behavior, reacted selectively: Demirel tended to excuse rightist violence, while Ecevit viewed leftist attacks as legitimate reactions to social injustice. Moreover, the economy, which had been expected to improve beginning in 1979, failed to do so. Instead, that year, inflation reached 117.4 percent, unemployment increased from 20 to 25 percent, and industrial production fell by almost 3 percent. The deteriorating economic situation meant that Ankara had to re-negotiate agreements with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and was required to introduce measures including liberalization of foreign investment laws.

More immediate to the coup was the legislative incapacity of the Turkish parliament. Between January and August, the legislative process was derailed by an increasingly bitter dispute between Demirel's ruling conservative Justice party (AP) and the more left-wing Republican People's party (CHP) led by Bülent Ecevit. Furthermore, concern was growing about the radical demands by both the Islamic fundamentalist National Salvation party led by Necmettin Erbakan and the extreme right-wing National Action party (MHP) of former General Alparslan Türkes. The perception that political squabbling was taking precedence over the national interest was reflected in parliament's inability after more than 100 ballots to elect a new President of the Republic after Fahri Korutürk's term was ended in April. Frustration levels among Turkey's political leaders led to a number of intrigues to replace the Demirel government.

The armed forces were also affected by these developments. Martial law, imposed in December 1978 in thirteen of Turkey's sixty-seven provinces (nowadays eighty-one), was extended a year later to nineteen provinces, and by September 1980 was in effect in twenty. While targets for extremist violence were generally police officials, judges, and prominent politicians, in the six months prior to the coup, members of the armed forces also became subject to a number of attacks. By early September 1980 it was estimated that approximately 25 percent of the 475,000-man army was involved in maintaining civil order, a role not welcomed by the High Command.

Moreover, as journalist Mehmet Ali Birand notes, it would have been impossible to expect them "to remain immune to the divisions and stirrings which had rent asunder the fabric of civil society". By early 1980, senior officers were becoming increasingly alarmed that the country's political polarization had begun to "seep into" the armed forces. Younger officers and NCOs were especially vulnerable to the right- and left-wing ideological exchanges. According to Birand, many of the new NCOs were former student political activists who had enlisted to escape death threats. Once in uniform, they proceeded to propagandize their views within the ranks and among the junior officers.

While the coup was a response to a number of issues, as early as 1975, many officers had become convinced of the un-workability of the existing Constitution. It was not until December 1979, however, that Turkey's senior military leaders began to organize themselves to take political action. They decided to adopt a similar approach to that employed in 1970. On 27 December 1979, the High Command sent a letter to the President urging the country's leaders to "seek solutions and take measures jointly within an Ataturkist national perspective and within the current parliamentary democratic regime". On 1 January 1980, a letter from General Evren was released to the public urging the formation of a broadly-based coalition government and parliament's speedy passage of anti-terrorist measures. A week later, Evren published a list of over sixty political demands that the armed forces felt were necessary - demands that Demirel accepted but was subsequently unable to legislate because of the continuing partisan.

Throughout the ensuing nine months, a sense of crisis took hold of Turkey's political system, although the trigger for the coup appears to have been the fear of left-wing and Islamic extremism. Negotiations between Ecevit and Erbakan raised the fear of an anti-Western, pro-Moslem government. On 6 September, Erbakan attended a public rally of Islamic fundamentalists at which he called for the restoration of the Shariah. The next day, Ecevit gave a speech to a trade union gathering in which he urged the members to take violent action if they felt injustice existed. The government seemed powerless to respond to these provocations. On 7 September, Evren and the four service commanders decided that they would overthrow the civilian government on 1 September.

The Turkish military perceived their role as custodians of national legitimacy, restoring public order while preparing the country for a transition to a functioning democratic system. With little resistance, the armed forces took administrative control of the state through a five-member National Security Council (NSC) and appointed a civilian cabinet. Martial law was extended to all sixty-seven of Turkey's provinces. In an effort to clean-up Turkish politics, the military also ensured that those they regarded as accessories to the problems leading to the coup were no longer able to influence events: a 1981 decree by the NSC prohibited persons, such as Demirel and Ecevit, from participation in politics. The transition to civilian rule began when a new Constitution was accepted by a public referendum in 1982. The end of military rule came on 6 November 1983, when a general election yielded a victory for the Motherland party, with Turgut Özal becoming prime minister.

All About Turkey © Burak Sansal 1996–2014, a certified professional tour guide in Turkey. Contact Burak at buraksan@superonline.com for all kinds of regular and/or private travel services throughout the country.