Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VII

Now this series moves onto the first government that resulted from a peaceful electoral transfer of power in Turkish and Ottoman history, the government of Adnan Menderes and the Democrat Party (DP), which came to power in 1950.

The DP was more open to religious conservative sentiment and more free market oriented, though that has to be understood in a very relative way. In power, the DP expanded the number of state enterprises, used economic clientelism to generate business backing, and tolerated an inflation rate of about 20%, though it did also open the economy more to international investment. It was not only more open to religious conservatism (which included creating more pressure for school students to take religion classes and openly Islamist attitudes from some DP politicians), but had a highly nationalist aspect to it, which overlapped. This can be seen most dramatically in the case of the attacks on Greeks in Istanbul in 1955, leading to systematic destruction of property and the loss of about 30 lives.

Though the Menderes government tried to deny involvement and engaged in a token crackdown on ultranationalist groups afterwards, there is plenty of eye-witness information that Democrat Party officials orchestrated mob violence and the police were ordered to remain passive. The army also played a role, drawing on the NATO Gladio structure (groups preparing to resist Soviet occupation, which have also been associated with violent deep state activities in Italy and Spain), to establish a covert command-and-control group. The riots were orchestrated in reaction to armed Greek resistance to British rule in Cyprus, which was seen as threatening the reduction of Cypriot Turks to a second class minority in Cyprus.

We see here the intersection of religious chauvinism (as in Muslim hatred of Orthodox Christians), nationalist chauvinism (as in Turkish hatred of Greeks), inter-state conflict (Greek-Turkish rivalry over the future of Cyprus), inter-communal tension in a historically connected territory (Greek-Turkish rivalry in Cyprus which was an Ottoman possession for centuries), decolonisation (the breakdown of British colonialism in Cyprus) and Cold War covert security structures.

We also see here how troubled claims of the Turkish right to offer something more liberal than Kemalism are. There has been a persistent tendency of some Turkish liberals to go along with this for Menderes in the 50s, Türgüt Özal in the 80s, and Erdoğan in the 2000s and even early 2010s. This is all highly misguided, as will be discussed in future posts. For now, we can concentrate on the record of the Menderes government in encouraging and instrumentalising a combination of ethnic and religious chauvinism, along with growing attacks on the freedom the press and freedom of opposition culminating in the imposition of martial law in early 1960.

The Democrat Party pioneered the politics now followed by the AKP, in which democracy means the dominance of the majority (understood in artificially homogenous terms) in terms of political processes and officially promoted culture combined with the squeezing out of minority and oppositional politics and culture. Elements of economic liberalisation become drowned in state cronyism and inflationary debt-financed vote buying. This is what we might now call authoritarian populism, illiberal democracy, or electoral authoritarianism. Sad to say this has taken place with the assistance of those in Turkey who describe themselves as liberal.

This bad understanding of democracy was promoted by the manner in which the Menderes government ended. A military coup led to: government by military council, the dissolution of the Democrat Party, the arrest of DP politicians, the subsequent execution of Menderes and two other ministers, the adoption of a new constitution by referendum during the military government, the creation of a military-dominated national security committee with power to place issues on the cabinet agenda, and the encouragement of nationalisation.

The complication in this highly illiberal process is that aspects of the new constitution were good from a liberal point of view, including the creation of an elected senate (the first upper house in republican history) and the legalisation of the socialist left, which had been previously heavily squeezed by both the Republican People’s Party and the Democrat Party. Some of the more liberal members of the Democrat Party contributed to the constitutional revision process, so we just can see the process as a straightforwardly anti-liberal process, however undesirable the process was from a liberal point of view.

The political change through coup left disturbing elements in later Turkish political life, which are still with us: the attitude that military intervention is a normal way to end political crisis, the identification of opposition to government with the formulation of a military coup, a victim-desire for revenge mentality amongst the most socially and religiously conservative parts of Turkish society.

The army colonel who proclaimed the 1960 coup on state radio, Alparslan Türkeş, was already known as a militant nationalist. He was purged from the military government along with other colonels who were formulating some kind of long term radical authoritarian regime, and carried on in politics as the most prominent figure in the history of Turkish ultranationalism.

İsmet İnönü enjoyed his last period in power from 1961 to 1965 as Prime Minister. Süleyman Demirel emerged as the new big figure on the centre right. Türkeş and his associates entered politics through infiltration of the National Peasant Party, which broke away from the Democrat Party in the 60s with a more aggressively religious and nationalist program. More on this and later developments in the next post.

4 thoughts on “Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VII

  1. I’m 69 years old and I’ve never heard of the NATO Gladio structure. I’m embarrassed.

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