The Menderes metaphor

The Menderes metaphor

Nicholas Danforth*
On May 28, 1960, U.S. Ambassador Fletcher Warren sat down with Cemal Gürsel, the general who, at 4 o’clock the previous morning had seized control of Turkish government. Ambassador Warren, citing the many coups he had seen as a diplomat in Latin America, told Turkey’s new leader that his had been “by far the most precise, most efficient, and most rapid coup” he had ever seen. Warren warned that after the military had seized power once, they would find it increasingly difficult to avoid doing so in the future when the political process faltered.

Though Ambassador Warren had been nicknamed “the tall idiot” by Turks and was blamed by Washington for not anticipating the coup, his warning proved prescient. The next several decades saw several more coups, against leftists, Islamists, and politicians of all stripes who were seen as unable to rule. The experience has understandably led many, most notably current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to romanticize Menderes as a democratic martyr and his decade in power as a lost opportunity for Turkish democracy.

Addressing the country after his Aug. 10 presidential victory in 2014, Erdoğan declared that the “parenthesis” opened by Turkey’s 1960 coup had finally been closed. By making him the country’s first popularly-elected president, Erdoğan suggested that the Turkish people had finally achieved the true sovereignty that had been taken from them almost half a century earlier. In praising Adnan Menderes, the prime minister deposed and later executed in the 1960 coup, Erdoğan reprised his victory speech from the 2011 general elections, in which he declared that the AKP’s triumph at the polls was also a triumph of the democratic ideal for which Menderes had sacrificed his life.

In the wake of Erdoğan’s victory, it is worth reconsidering the story of Menderes, who was neither the pious democrat imagined by his modern-day supporters nor the reactionary demagogue denounced by their secularist opponents. Menderes’s decade in office offers an all-too-familiar example of courageous democratic aspirations collapsing into paranoid authoritarianism.

Erdoğan and his supporters seldom mention that within five years of being elected, when his party still had a solid grasp on power, Menderes began shutting down newspapers and jailing opposition journalists. The New York Times, in language that would sound familiar today, repeatedly declared itself “disturb[ed] to read about an increasing curtailment of the freedom of the Turkish press.” During these years, the consistent critique from American liberals was that in supporting Menderes, the U.S. was backing another right-wing dictator against communism. By 1960, the regime had put the leadership of the country’s opposition party on trial for treason. The U.S. government, though privately concerned about Menderes’s autocratic behavior, continued to back the man who brought Turkey into NATO while overseeing 10 years of free-market reforms.

Menderes’s fate, meanwhile, helps explain how today, following increasingly serious accusations of corruption and authoritarianism, Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions could win the support of the majority of Turkey’s voters. Faced with a choice between civilian and military authoritarianism, Turkish officers in 1960 chose the latter. Now, by curbing the power of the military and securing his election as president, Erdoğan’s biggest accomplishment is providing Turkey with an opportunity to try the former.

Menderes’s transformation into a tyrant was a tragedy for Turkish democracy. Like Erdoğan, he had begun his career as a bold young politician, challenging an established autocracy in the name of his people’s material needs and democratic rights. For those of us who optimistically cheered Erdoğan’s efforts to democratize Turkey and join the EU, it is painful to watch this tragedy repeat itself, albeit with a slightly different ending. Like Menderes, Erdoğan had the ability to substantially help consolidate Turkish democracy. And like Menderes, he squandered it.

*Nicholas Danforth is a PhD candidate in History at Georgetown University, US. This is an abridged version of the original article in the Winter 2015 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).