Thirty Years after Turkey's Last Military Coup

September 17, 2010

By Roger Owen

Thirty years ago on 12 September 1980 Turkey experienced a military coup, its third in twenty years. Designed to put an end to many months of ugly street fighting and killings, it also paved the way for a root and branch attempt to create an entirely new political system by means of its 1982 constitution, banishing all the old politicians and all the old political parties in the interests of introducing a new type of guided democracy under a fresh breed of a-political technocrats.

Given the spreading violence, given the army’s carefully polished image of a neutral arbiter intervening only when Turkey’s civilian politicians had manifestly failed to manage a democratic system, the coup had many supporters both inside the country and, just as importantly, among its European and NATO allies. Never mind that there were some contemporary critics who pointed out that the army had very obviously allowed the situation to deteriorate for several murderous years so as to make its intervention look a great deal better. Never mind that the intervention also led to thousands of arrests as well as hanging and exile for many. It was enough that the military had a solid reputation for fixing things and then handing power back to civilians for its actions to obtain widespread support.

The positive impact on Turkey’s economy also helped. Given the 1982 constitution’s ban on trade union activity, a captive labor force helped keep costs down while cheap but well-made Turkish products found new markets in the Middle East, particularly in Iran and Iraq during their long war, and in the European Union, its biggest trading partner.

Now, thirty years later, things look very different. Not only is there a civilian government in power, the Justice and Development Party, the AKP, with the popular backing to put huge limits on the independent power of the army commanders, but it is also possible to understand how this came to pass. By destroying the power of the old parties and depriving the old politicians of access to their faithful political constituencies, the military coup and the 1982 constitution paved the way for newer and much weaker political entities to emerge without the strength to cope properly with the financial and other crises that beset the country in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the administrative weakness in Ankara encouraged the emergence of charismatic and effective municipal leaders, many of them, like Istanbul’s Tayyip Erdogan, associated with a growing state-managed Islamic movement manifest in the building of new mosques and a much more open discussion of religion in a de-regulated media.

The result, once the new Islamists were able to organize themselves together in a national political party, was the appearance of a new force on the political scene with a clever program of outflanking both its rivals and the military by adopting policies which were at once more pro-European and more economically effective than those of its competitors. The wave of public support this aroused carried them to victory in two elections, in 2002 and 2007, as well as giving them the confidence to engage in a long struggle against military independence including, in the last few years, a few shadowy military plots as well.

The successful constitutional referendum, held deliberately on the same day as the thirtieth anniversary of the 1980 coup was clearly designed to put a cap on this whole process. Erdogan’s appeal to voters to "end the shame of coups" was supported by amendments limiting the power of military courts to try civilians and withdrawing the legal immunity previously enjoyed by the 1980 coup-makers, several of whom, like its leader, General Evren, are still alive.

Just how the military allowed themselves to get into such a humiliating situation remains unclear. But it must have had much to do with the tenacity, pragmatism and skill of Erdogan himself who, like civilian leaders in other parts of the Middle East and elsewhere, knew how to use his electoral victories at the polls to dare the army to try to reverse the express wishes of the majority of Turkish citizens, a challenge which, in the new world of Western-promoted democracy, the generals did not feel either strong, united or bold enough to take up. 

The story does not end there of course. As with other constitutional amendments in the Middle East, in Egypt in 2007 for instance, the electorate was confronted with a package in which some obviously popular measures were mixed in with ones designed to strengthen the government’s own control, for example those giving the Turkish executive much greater powers over the constitutional court and the judiciary.

This may not help the AKP a great deal in electoral terms, however. On the one hand, more will be expected of it now that the military threat is out of the way. On the other, it is faced with a reviving opposition from the successor to the once all-powerful Republican Peoples Party (RPP), a hot war in Kurdistan, as well as a number of major economic and social grievances, many of them of its own making. At the core of the AKP’s supporters are a group of mostly small town businessmen whose devotion to a free market has produced not just a great deal of corruption in and around government but also a total neglect of traditional agriculture that has cut the rural population by almost half in the last ten years, leading to a huge movement towards the cities of the west accompanied by high levels of unemployment. 

Meanwhile, the party has run into all kinds of problems as it tries, at one and the same time, to satisfy the aspirations of its more religiously-minded constituency without upsetting its military and commercial partners in Europe, America, Israel and elsewhere. The Marmora boat incident was a good case in point. The heady wave of anti-Israeli rhetoric soon gave way to a more measured set of initiatives designed to repair some of the damage to the country’s international interests.

Historians date Turkey’s start in democracy with the emergence of a functioning two-party system when the RPP surrendered power to the Democrat Party after its defeat in the 1950 elections. Having been given a vital opening by the unintended consequences of the third military intervention in 1980, the AKP must now cope with the operation of much the same logic, that it must attend better to the interests of all parts of the national constituency or face inevitable decline and eventual loss of power in a future election.

This article was originally published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in September 2010. Read more of Professor Owen's Al-Hayat columns in English here.