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.
After a break dealing with proofs and indexes of two forthcoming books, a process that overlapped with getting a new university semester started, I can return to this series, which I last added to here. I set the scene of the late 1960s in Turkey, so I will turn to the next big upheaval, the Coup by Memorandum on March 12th 1971.
The Coup by Memorandum followed an attempted coup by far left/third worldist revolutionaries amongst the officer corps. Any unity created by the Kemalist project (secularist national-republican tradition of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk) was effectively ended, though this decomposition could be said about the whole period from the 1940s to 1971, especially after the adoption of multi-partyism by Atatürk’s successor, İsmet İnönü.
The 1971 coup forced the resignation of the conservative Prime Minister Süyleman Demirel and the implementation of a program to crush the far left, while also implementing some of the more left-wing ideas associated with the 1960 coup (particularly land reform and trade union rights). National View, the first Islamist party in Turkey, founded by Necmettin Erbakan, was closed down along with leftist groups so that an appearance of balance could be maintained in opposing the extremes on both sides. The reality, though, is that the level of state repression, including violence, and further including illegal violence (torture of the arbitrarily detained) directed against the far left, including Kurdish autonomists, drastically exceeded that directed against the far right.
The level of oppression that affected the mainstream right (in that the Justice Party was temporarily removed from government) and religious right was enough to create the idea that the right in Turkey was in some way the liberal part of Turkish politics. This not only influenced liberals, but even some people with very left wing views. It is part of how the AKP could come to power and hollow out state institutions, while subordinating civil society from 2002 onwards. The right continued with a militant anti-communist discourse, in all parts, while in part posing as the liberal friends of leftist rights, along with the rights of the Kurdish autonomists. This was pioneered by Turgut Özal in the 80s and taken further by the AKP. Presumably, Turkish liberals and leftists of the most anti-Kemalist sort have now learned a lesson, but possibly too late to benefit from it for at least a generation.
The military establishment’s implicit tolerance of the religious right, along with the ultranationalist grey wolves, in comparison to the secularist leftists tells an important story about the reality of ‘Kemalist domination’ of Turkey. It had evolved into a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a compromise with the more conservative parts of the Kemalist establishment, in which the Turkish-Islamic synthesis became more prominent and the ‘Kemalism’ became more and more gestural, including a pointless obsession with preventing young women with covered hair from entering the university, at the same time as the rights of non-Muslim minorities.
The picture is more complicated in that the anti-leftist post-memorandum government in 1971 closed the Greek Orthodox seminary in the Princes Islands off the Marmara Sea coast of Istanbul, as part of a general closure or nationalisation of private (largely foreign) institutions of higher education. This was a policy in accordance with the demands of the far left, including campus radicals. So a measure to deny rights to a Christian minority coincided with the demands of the far left and was undertaken by a notionally secularist government, in reality more concerned with crushing the far left and extending a conservative form of statism.
The above, in any case, did not resolve the real problems of political violence to which the 1971 coup responded. The period between the end of the very temporary government appointed in 1971 and the coup of 12th September 1983 was one of increasing political violence and extremism, with a lack of stable governments as the Justice Party lost majority support (though it remained in government most of the time). Neither it nor the Republican People’s Party were able to form stable coalitions or parliamentary agreements, while the economy suffered and political violence increased between far left and far right groups. Unexplained massacres of demonstrators and political assassinations accompanied barricades that violent groups put up to signify control of urban areas.
The National Assembly failed to elect a President of the Republic in 1980, despite 115 rounds of voting during increasing political and economic disruptions. When the army seized power again on the 12th September, there was widespread public support, but this was the most brutal of the military governments. Its attempt to create a more ‘stable’, i.e. authoritarian, democracy gave Turkey a constitution and system which enabled the AKP to come to power with 35% of the vote in 2002 and then erode the weak restraints on executive powers when held in conjunction with a one party majority in the National Assembly.
More on this in the next post.
The Democrat Party returned to power under the name of Justice Party (a name possibly referring to ‘justice’ for Adnan Menderes, who was certainly executed as the result of a very politicised trial, but was no genuine martyr of democracy) in 1965. This hint at an enduring idealisation of Menderes sets up many problems in Turkey to the present day.
Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has appealed to the same theme, which has very evidently turned under his rule into a drive for ‘revenge’ against anyone who supposedly defies the National Will.
The National Will, in practice, is based on preserving a monolithic majoritarianism based on ethnic Turkish nationalism and Sunni religious identity along with loyalism to the state under its rightful leader, who looks more like a Reis (a traditional chief) than the head of a liberal democracy.
This process begins under Süyleman Demirel (1924-2015) as leader of the AP (short for Adalet Partisi, the Turkish words for Justice Party). Demirel himself was despised by Erdoğan, and in the end sided with his old enemy, the Republican People’s Party, against Erdoğan’s AKP. However, AKP stands for Adalet ve Kalkınması Partisi, which is Justice and Development Party, so clearly Erdoğan placed himself in Demirel’s tradition. Demirel was Prime Minister or President for nearly half of the time from 1965 to 2000, but never acquired the status of a giant in national history, as such a long occupation of the highest offices of state might suggest.
The most grotesque single item of evidence of Demirel’s desire for revenge over the 1960 coup came in the case of Deniz Gezmiş, a leading figure on the revolutionary left, who was arrested for the kidnapping of two American soldiers. Gezmiş was executed in 1972, along with two associates, after Demirel had said ‘we want three’, in a clear reference to the execution of Menderes and two of his ministers in 1961, and possibly referring to Gezmiş’ self-declared Kemalism (though he is usually seen as more a revolutionary Marxist). We have two major problems in Turkish politics in one here. Firstly the attraction of some parts of the left to political violence; secondly the unendingly vengeful attitude of the right towards the 1960 coup and a belief in state violence as the solution to the far left.
State violence against the far left has been constant in the Republic. As long as there was Soviet Socialist Russia and then the USSR, the far left tended to be seen as part of an assault by a traditional national rival, whether run by a Tsarist or Bolshevik regime. This combined with a never ending fear of the weakness of liberal democracy in the face of possibly existential enemies in which political compromise has been seen as treason.
The continuing idolisation of Gezmiş, who was it must be said an attractive and charismatic person, who died young and very good looking, by the far left continues a vicious cycle in which the state establishment under various governments treats any expression of far left views as subversion, only one stop at most from outright terrorism, while the far left can then see violence as politically legitimate. Not everyone who continues the memory of Gezmiş advocates violence and we can only hope he does become a symbol of revolutionary purity detached from advocacy of political violence.
The existence of the revolutionary groups where Gezmiş operated itself tells us something about the difficulties of the 1960s. Economic growth and stability was reasonable, but there was no state understanding of how to incorporate the most disaffected parts of society. The far left was not very working class in its base, which has a stronger social core in Aleviism, that is a heterodox off shoot of Shia Islam, which constitutes the largest religious minority in Turkey.
The strongest geographical concentration of Alevis is in the Tunceli (also known as Dersim) region. These Zazaki (Persian dialect) speaking Alevis, along with Alevis elsewhere, had an antagonism to the Republican People’s Party as a result of extreme suffering during state-Zazaki Alevi conflict in Tunceli during the later 30s. However, when the Democrat Party-Justice Party line became the new state establishment and expression of Sunni supremacy, Alevi support switched to the Republican People’s Party and has stayed with it ever since as a major component. The far left also has a strong Alevi component, expressed at its most extreme in the DHKP/C terrorist/insurgent group.
Support for the far left reflects to some degree the incapacity of the state to deal with Alevi identity, while also failing to adapt to the kind of radicalised student political culture of the late 60s that existed on a global level. A significant part of this international trend comes from the growth of higher education to accommodate more people from non-elite backgrounds, which meant an increasing proportion of students with little hope of achieving the elite status more easily achieved by earlier students.
Pesant families were moving from the land into illegally constructed buildings in city suburbs, creating a target audience for the far left, though providing more support overall for the most conservative aspects of the right. The ultranationalist right found political expression in the Republican Peasants’ National Party after its take over by Alparslan Türkeş. Türkeş had announced the 1960 coup on the radio, but in politics deviated from the Kemalist ideology of the military government, certainly by the late ’60s when Türkeş went on pilgrimage to Mecca and changed the name of the party to Nationalist Action, with a party emblem of three crescent moons, referring to an Ottoman military standard.
The Nationalist Action Party was named as such in 1969, the year that Necemettin Erbakan founded National View. National View is a Muslim conservative movement which takes much of its inspiration from the Arab-based Muslim Brotherhood. The National View of Erbakan evidently refers to Turkish nationalism. The nationalist movement had secular aspects and the religious conservative movement had aspects of a Muslim universalism beyond nations, though particularly directed towards the Arab world, so seeking a kind of authentic source for religion. On the whole, the Grey Wolf/Idealist Hearth nationalists of Türkeş and the National View religious conservatives of Erbakan converged. This tendency is often referred to as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis and has roots going back to the late 19th century, but is mostly thought of as something that grew in the 60s.
More on this and related topics in the next post.
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.
- Turkish underworld joins war on journalists Amberin Zaman, Al-Monitor
- Turkish underworld has long history of working for Ankara Barry Stocker, NOL
- Russia meddles in Greece-Macedonia name bargain Kerin Hope, Financial Times
- The ugly plight of Turkey’s hidden Armenians Kapil Komireddi, the National
The end of World War Two placed Turkey between the Soviet Communist world and the western democracies. It’s Middle Eastern neighbours consisted of one outright colony (thinly disguised as a League of Nations mandate), French Syria; one de facto colony of Britain, Iraq (formally independent after a mandate period); one country whose sovereignty was highly compromised by United States and British ‘interests’, that is Iran. After decades of rule by the secularist-nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP is the Turkish acronym), the idea of a Middle Eastern orientation was not a major one at any kind of obvious level, and had limited practical applicability even for those oriented towards the kind of traditionalist Islam which inevitably looks for some kind of connection with the original Muslim heartland.
The Muslim Brotherhood was formed in (British dominated) Egypt in 1928 and that becomes more important in Turkey over time. A Turkish version, National View, was founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1969, and forms the core of the AKP today, led by Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan. Turkish history from the 1940s to the AKP coming to power in 2002 can look like an inevitable process, and with some qualifications that is probably a reasonable one-sentence way of thinking. Qualifications include the dangers of seeing history as the inevitable unfolding of a single unified process, and the constant possibility that better decisions by secular leaders at various time could have prevented this outcome. The decisions of the small numbers of self-defined liberals in Turkey were not really any better, sad to say.
İnönü’s response to the post-war world was to adopt multi-partyism. The Democrat Party was allowed to form under Adnan Menderes, who had been a member of the short-lived Free Republican Party and then a CHP deputy, and former prime minister Celâl Bayar. The DP contested the 1946 election, which was not all fully free and fair, but came to power in a more properly conducted election in 1950. Bayâr became President and Menderes became Prime Minister. This worked more as the Turkish constitution suggested than when the CHP was the only party in the national assembly. The result was that Menderes was the decision making person.
This political opening up helped Turkey into the Council of Europe (the grouping of European democracies) in 1949 and made it eligible for Marshall Aid under İnönü. Under Menderes, Turkey joined NATO in 1952. Acceptance into NATO was helped by substantial Turkish participation in the Korean War. The participation of conscript peasant soliders from Anatolia is still remembered in folk songs.
All these ways in which Turkey was acknowledged as part of the community of European democracies took place simultaneously for Greece, so the countries were taken as a pair during this period. The peaceful transfer of power through election from İnönü and the CHP to Menderes and the DP was the first such occasion in Turkish and Ottoman history. Some have seen İnönü as ‘only’ responding to US pressure and therefore denied him credit. This has, in the past, been the default position of most Turkish liberals though I believe that the latest historical work shows that İnönü was much more of an active enthusiast for the transition to genuine elections. On this matter, and others, it looks like time for the default ‘liberal’ position to change.
In any case, the whole idea that İnönü only responded to pressure is unsatisfactory. Of course he made his decision in a context of international balances of power of the time. Others made different decisions. In Spain, for instance, Francisco Franco stuck to ultra-conservative, Fascist-influenced dictatorship, accepting US military bases and continuing previous valuable trading relations. In Portugal, the corporatist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar joined NATO after the adoption of an absurd imitation of party pluralism, with a purely token licensed opposition. Spain and Portugal were not aid recipients, but were able to get considerable trade advantages from the differing deals they made to associate with North Atlantic democracies. İnönü could have found ways to stay in power for ever, but did not.
There were limits to İnönü’s moves towards political pluralism and it was certainly not the ideal process. To some degree, it was one part of the CHP agreeing to the demands of the other part (which left to form DP) to have its turn in power after the current, most favourable to state-led joint secularism and modernity had been in power for so long. More on the DP in the next post.
Returning to İnönü’s rule after the war, the left became victims after a period relative tolerance in the latter years of World War Two, when it looked like the western allies would win in alliance with the US, so the Turkish state showed more tolerance of leftists and less of pan-Turkish nationalists who had the most tolerance of Fascism and Nazism (there has never been a self-identified fascist or national socialist political movement in Turkey).
Not only did İnönü oppress leftist groups outside the CHP as he moved towards genuinely contested elections, he identified left-Kemalist loyalists to the regime as communists who needed to be purged. This was at least in part to gain favour in the US by presenting himself as the main enemy of a real communist threat. Left-Kemalist academics who lost their university jobs at the time included Neyazi Berkes, the most notable Kemalist intellectual of any kind, who went onto an academic career in the west. Measures against left groups outside the CHP included using a religious conservative gang to smash the printing presses of a left newspaper. The willingness of the state to tolerate, and even promote, illegal violence by far right groups supposed threats to the regime and has been a frequent occurrence ever since.
To be continued