On 15 July 2016, a group of soldiers in the Turkish army attempted a coup. It was suppressed within hours. Turkish government, now ruling the country with the dynamics of ‘state of emergency,’ has purged the Gulenists of bureaucracy as the perpetrators of the coup attempt since then. It was thought that military tutelary especially in the recent years of the Justice and Development Party rule had been attenuated.
Neither the coup attempt of 15 July, nor the consecutive restructuring of politics is unfamiliar to Turkey. On the contrary, direct or indirect military intervention into politics has been one of the key but commonplace elements of Turkish politics since the mid-20th century. After each intervention, Turkey experienced a series of major structural changes, from its constitution to its military. The major interventions took place in 1960, 1971, and 1980. All had major effects on several fronts in the history of Turkey.
Turkish Republic was founded mostly by the military class of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I. However, despite the special place of military and its respectfulness in the foundation of modern Turkey, Ataturk, the founder of the republic and an ex-officer himself, was against the politicization of the army. Soldiers were banned from politics with a legislation passed in 1925.
What were the economic, political, and social conditions which paved the way for military coups in Turkey? The prevailing economic conditions along with the political and social ones in Turkey before the major coups took place point out to problematic periods. It is evident that whenever the Turkish army imposed martial laws, the worsening economic, political and social conditions were presented as a threat to the very existence of the Turkish populace and republic.
With the end of World War II, the period of multi-party democracy began in Turkey. The founding party of the republic, CHP (Republican People’s Party), lost the government in 1950 to DP (Democratic Party).
DP defined itself liberal but did not enforce liberal policies both in the economy and politics. 1950s commenced with sweeping changes in Turkey. In the meantime, the economy increasingly depended on agriculture. Agricultural bourgeoisie was rising but also immigration from rural areas to urban areas was accelerating. Agricultural subsidies and government expenditures were financed through money printing which resulted in increasing inflation rates. Inflation rate went up to 22.6% in 1960 from 9% in 1954. Besides, the current account deficit was widening. Those economic developments led to economic predicaments and social unrest in the late 1950s. 78% of the population working in agriculture was able to earn only 37% of the national income generated. On 27 May 1960, the first major coup took place.
The Constitution of 1961 opened a new space to different political groups. CHP and AP (Justice Party, founded by ex-Democrats) were still important players. However, leftists, ultra-nationalists, and Islamists also began to organize their own political frameworks. Although AP formed a single party government after 1965, it was not the sole determiner of the politics. First, it had limited executive power and experienced frequent problems with the army. Second, in addition to different opposition parties in the parliament, the politics of the streets occasionally creating violent acts became a significant component of the political scene. Third, various factions in disorder (still) existed in the army further complicating the political environment.
The economic performance of the early 1960s made rapid progress through increasing government expenditures and with the help of IMF’s stability programs. The inflation rate dropped to 2.9% in 1961. However, the negatively changing political environment and populist approach to politics towards the end of the 1960s had negative impact on the economic performance. Widening foreign trade and budget deficits led Turkey to an economic crisis. Even the strong devaluation of the Turkish Lira in 1970 was not able to be a cure to the economy. Instability both in politics and the economy was deep and widespread.
The military memorandum of 1971 was submitted under those circumstances. It did not target the dissolution of the parliament as the 1960 coup did, but it clearly threatened to do so unless a stable political environment was constituted in the country. The government was forced to resign, some conservative amendments were made in the constitution.
Despite the aim of the military intervention to provide stability, the 1970s symbolize one of the most turbulent epochs in Turkey. Short-term weak coalition governments, increased military tutelary that regarded the army as the sole protector of the state, ideological polarization, violent terror acts and sectarian strife with everyday casualties, and a severe economic crisis paved the way for the coup of 1980. The 1970s demonstrated a decade of economic crises in the world and in Turkey. Turkey managed to grow moderately between 1970 and 1976 but the growth rate averaged only at 1.6% between 1976 and 1980. Turkey’s own economic crisis strongly interacted with the crises triggered by the demise of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 and the oil crisis of 1973.
The coup in 1980 closed down the parliament and political parties. Parliamentarians were arrested and National Security Council composed of generals became the ruling institution of the country. Even if Turkey returned back to the parliamentary system soon, the post 1980 period had opened a new era for Turkish politics, the legacy of which is still felt.
Throughout the 1970s, right-wing coalition governments together with the conservative generals had tried to crush the left, as well as to hand over bureaucratic posts to the right-wing ideology. The coup of 1980 was against the politics as a whole. With the 1980s, Turkey entered a phase in which the right-wing ideologies began to dominate the political scene.
One of the concrete legacies in this respect is the Constitution of 1982. At the systemic level, executive body was strengthened against legislature and judiciary. Although many clauses were altered throughout the 1990s and 2000s, it is important to note that Turkey is still ruled by this constitution. A new constitution has been on the agenda of the ruling party AKP for many years, but the tense relations between the political parties and high level of polarization in the society have not allowed such a major undertaking.
Although the military class was banned from politics even in 1925 right after the republic was founded in 1923, the Turkish army has assigned itself the guardian of the secular establishment. The tradition of military interventions began in 1960 despite the fact that the constitution promulgated in 1961 brought unprecedented democratic standards by then. Yet, the coup on 12 September 1980 had devastating effects in Turkey’s march towards a mature democracy.
So, what was the so called “coup attempt” on 15 July 2016? The writers of this article think that it was an act of terrorism rather than a coup attempt. During none of the coups in Turkey were the parliament bombed and a large number of civilians killed. It is clear that tough economic, political, and social conditions provided the army with excuses in the name of protecting the establishment and secularism in the past. However, Turkish democracy has not enjoyed the opportunity to reach maturity in natural and civil ways.
No matter what conditions are prevailing, democratic order strengthened through the enforcement of separation of powers and the rule of law has to be kept in order to improve the democratic foundations.
PhD in Modern Turkish History, Visiting Scholar at Central European University