Turkish democracy’s test with the military
The trial of the two surviving leaders of the 1980 military coup in Turkey on April 4 in an Ankara criminal court marks a historical turn in the country’s painful relationship between politics and the military. The trial for the Sept. 12, 1980, coup is the first example in which those who overthrew an elected government and abolished an elected Parliament are being put on trial.
Perhaps after observing the support and enthusiasm for this court case throughout society, including support from opposition parties and ordinary people who lost their relatives during the systematic violations of human rights under and after the military regime, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave instructions to his Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) officials in Parliament to propose an inter-party commission to investigate all coups and coup attempts in the country’s recent history.
This is because 1980 was not the only coup. The first overthrow of an elected government in republican Turkey was on May 27, 1960, when a junta from within the military seized power with support from a section of the university youth and intellectuals agitated by the Adnan Menderes government, which they accused of having left no room for opposition. The junta not only executed Prime Minister Menderes, together with Foreign Minister Fatih Rüştü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan, while imprisoning Liberation War hero and President Celal Bayar for life, but also reorganized the Turkish army in an ideologically motivated fashion.
That ideological motivation was and has been a vulgar and black-and-white version of Kemalism, which derives from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the Liberation War and the founder of the Republic. But the basis of that reorganization was actually a mixture of Prussian-type elitism and French-type Jacobinism; for them, the steering wheel of the country was too precious to be left to civilians who come to power with the votes of ignorant masses.
Plus there were the high and dominating needs of the Cold War, which had not reached its zenith yet.
There might be a reason why the coup declaration read over the occupied, one-channel Ankara radio added the final sentence, “We are committed to Turkey’s obligations to NATO.” United States-led NATO needed a strong counterpart in Turkey with its critical geographical positioning regarding the Soviet Union.
Can that be a coincidence that all three coups d’état in Turkey (including the one on March 12, 1971) took place during the critical ups and downs of the Cold War? Can it be a coincidence that a fourth attempt to overthrow the government in 1997, following the end of the Cold War, had no green light from Turkey’s Western allies and actually first triggered a major economic crisis and then a radical change in the political climate, bringing Erdoğan’s AK Parti to power in 2002? And can it be a coincidence that the first majority government after years paved the way for not only the opening of court cases against attempted conspiracies against itself but also against former ones? Probably not.
This is a test for Turkey in its painful relationship between politics and the military. In former turning points in 1826 and 1926, there was no multiparty regime. Now there is, turning the affair into a test of Turkish democracy and its relationship with the military.