Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism X

In my last post in this series, I discussed Turkey of the 1970s, starting with the 1971 Coup by Memorandum. Now I will move onto the Turkey of the 1980s, starting with the 12th September Coup in 1980, its impact and the foundations of civilian politics after the military left government. The coup was in reaction to political violence in the streets, political deadlock in the National Assembly and a worsening economic situation. It was overwhelming popular when launched, but since has become thought of as the darkest moment of the Turkish state. Despite its retrospective unpopularity and the ways that Recep Tayyıp’s Erdoğan AKP (along with Islamist predecessor parties) has positioned itself as the biggest victims of the coup, there are clear continuities with the current illiberal Erdoğanist-AKP regime and the 12th September regime.

At the time of the coup the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces was Kenan Evren, and he became head of the military council which administered the country until 1983. He also assumed the office of President of the the Republic, which he retained after the return of civilian rule in 1983. He was still respectfully known as Evren Paşa to some when I first came to Turkey in 1997, but all lingering respect and affection has disappeared. There is some ingratitude here as Erdoğan’s way of running the country clearly owes a lot to Evren and the 1982 constitution promulgated by the coup regime, with its lack of restraints on executive power, enabled Erdoğan to take over the state and turn the kind of power Evren exercised during a military regime into the permanent power of a civilian president, based on a crudely majoritarian understanding of democracy. Majoritarian in two senses, which will be discussed below. The regime became famous for abuse of human rights, including mass detentions, widespread torture and widespread use of the death penalty for political linked crimes, including a man of only 17 years. The brutality and the crude political understanding of the generals in power undermined the idea that a full scale military coup was acceptable and it never happened again, though the story of military involvement in politics was not over.

The 12th September regime stabilised the economy with the help of Türgut Özal who was then a professional economist and then the first civilian Prime Minister when elections returned. The original plan was presented to the last pre-coup government and so the coup regime’s initial economic plan was a continuation of ideas entering the centre-right civilian political sphere sphere. This reduced some forms of state intervention in the economy and opened it more to the world economy, so could be labelled neo-liberal, a term now used largely as a term of abuse, but which can be used in a more meaningful way. Inevitably, there are left-wing analysts who treat the economic changes that came out of 1980 as the equivalent of the economic changes introduced in Chile after the September 1973 coup. This conceals more than it illuminates. The military adopted Özal’s plans out of pragmatism of the moment rather than conviction, soon moving away from economic liberalism, when a military figure replaced Özal as head of economic planning in 1982.

The 12th September regime organised a referendum in 1982 to pass a constitution which was far less liberal than that of 1961 (itself introduced by referendum during a period of military rule). It retained the role of the army in influencing the government through a National Security Council, introduced by the 1961 constitution. The 1980 constitution is still in place, though heavily amended. The 1982 constitution retained the centrality of the National Assembly as the expression of the national will, going back to the constitutional ideas at the beginning of the Republic. It increased executive privilege though in over-ruling court decisions and gave the Presidency just enough power so that once Erdoğan came to power with a strong willingness to ignore precedent and the norms guiding the constitution, he could turn Turkey into a de facto presidential republic with a weak national assembly, even before the 2016 referendum which formalised the change.

The electoral rules for the National Assembly were changed to exclude parties with below 10% of the vote. The system of proportional representation introduced (a version of the d’Hondt system), favoured the largest party so that it could take the majority of seats with about 35% of the vote (lower is possible but that in practice is how it has worked, depending on the distribution of votes between parties), which is how the AKP gained a majority. The rules were biased towards rural constituencies over urban constituencies, so favoured the right-wing parties.

The 10% rule is sometimes seen as aimed against Kurdish based parties, but if we look at the election results before 1980, it would be more reasonable to think of it as aimed against Idealist Hearths/Grey Wolf Turkish ultranationalists and National View Islamists. Preventing radical left parties and Kurdish based parties from entering the National Assembly may have been an aim in 1982, but surely only secondary to a wish to keep the far right out of the National Assembly. The system had adjusted to a kind of absolutist majoritarianism in which the ‘majority’ could be a plurality with much less than half the vote. The less formal design was to make Turkey a permanently majoritarian country in the sense that it would be dominated by forces rooted in the Sunni religious majority and dominant Turkish ethnicity resolutely committed to a very homogenous understanding of the nation in which the more extreme versions of ethnic nationalism and religious conservatism would be marginalised but so would religious minorities (most significantly Alevi Muslims), ethnic minorities (most significantly Kurds), and open non-believers. Evren himself publicly quoted from the Koran, completely against the spirit of Kemalism, and suppressed the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. Erdoğan has imitated him in both these respects.

The coup regime created its own national-conservative party with a left-Kemalist (national republican party) as the preferred opposition, both of which disappeared before long. Özal was allowed to create a middle ground party, Motherland (which now exists only as an on-paper micro-party satellite of AKP). This gathered members of the Menderes-Demirel centre-right tradition along with three other pillars: ultranationalists who had been active in the Grey Wolf  associations, former members of the left (including far-left) turned ‘liberal’, members of Sunni religious communities. All the pre-coup parties were illegal during the 1983 elections and the Motherland Party was the only legal party led by people with political experience and talents, so it was in the ideal position to get the most votes, to the irritation of the military leaders who nevertheless accepted the result.

Özal himself was a member of the Nakşibendi Sufi lodge (a very old religious community linked to very orthodox Sunni Islam, originating in the Ottoman lands but also present in other Muslim areas) so was the first Turkish leader from the world of religious communities in the history of the republic. More on Özal and the politics of the 1980s in the nest post.