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A Short History of Military Coups in Turkey



The period from 1960 to 1980 was a time when deep economic, political and social changes took place in Turkey. One of the most important phenomena that marked the period was the presence of the Armed Forces as an active political power and the military coups that were attempted or succeeded.


Military Coup of May 27, 1960

On May 27, 1960, the first military coup in the history of the Republic of Turkey was staged. This coup d’État that ended the Democrat Party (Demokrat Parti, DP) Government was carried out by low and middle ranked military officers and it was organized in a non-hierarchical way. The stagers of the coup founded the National Unity Committee (NUC, Milli Birlik Komitesi) with 38 members. Full General Cemal Gürsel was appointed as the director of the Coup and the NUC, and he served as Head of the State and Prime Minister during the Military Regime and as the President afterwards. NUC was left with 24 members after the elimination of 14 ‘radical’ members on November 13, 1960, and the death of another member left NUC with 23 members. A Council of Representatives was established on December 13, 1960, through the Law No. 157, and it was announced as a component of the Constituent Assembly, together with the NUC. The Council of Representatives, which completely excluded DP, consisted of the representatives of political parties and occupational organizations, in addition to provincial representatives. The final form of the constitution, whose draft was prepared by the Commission of Constitution and presented to the NUC for their approval, was accepted with 61,7 percent of votes in the referendum on July 9, 1961. Following the elections on October 15, 1961, the Parliament reopened on October 25, 1961, and the Military Regime period ended.


For their reasons of staging a coup d’état, the Military Regime of 1960 claimed that ‘a partisan administration and single-party dictatorship was established,’ ‘the constitutional state was abolished, ‘democracy was in a crisis’, ‘intellectual life and the press was under oppression’, and ‘economy policies were unplanned and inflationist’. The main action of the Military Regime of 1960, that abolished the Parliament, suspended political activities and established martial law in the country, was to prepare and put into effect the Constitution of 1961, which controlled execution with legislation and law, included principles of planning and a social state, and provided room for fundamental, political and social rights and freedoms. Among other important action of the Military Regime was the establishment of State Planning Organization (Devlet Planlama Teşkilatı, DPT), the establishment of the National Security Council through the Constitution, and the founding of Armed Forces Pension Fund (Ordu Yardımlaşma Kurumu, OYAK). Following the Military Coup, DP was closed on September 29, 1960. The imprisoned members of DP were tried in Yassıada [island of Istanbul] at the High Court of Justice, fifteen of them were sentenced to death and three of these convicts were executed by hanging: Adnan Menderes, Leader of Democrat Party and the Prime Minister of the DP Government; Hasan Polatkan, Minister of Finance; and Fatin Rüştü Zorlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs.


The Military Coup and Regime of May 27, 1960, institutionalized a model of capital accumulation based on import-substituting industrialization and planning. It was a coup d’état that aimed to administer class relations within the frame of a social state/national security state, which was marked by a modernizing and developmentalist optimism. According to this perspective, economic development based on planned industrialization, combined with the principle of social justice, would prevent class conflicts and thus a political regime that acknowledges rights and freedoms would be possible.


This formulation foreseen by the Military Regime of May 27, 1960, did not exactly gain acceptance in that form during the 1960s. On the one hand the Turkish bourgeoisie, right-wing political parties and particularly the Justice Party (Adalet Partisi, AP), and a strong tendency within the Army constantly questioned the notions of social state, planning, and rights and liberties. On the other hand, the working class, students and the revolutionary leftist movements further radicalized their demands of equality and freedom. The period from 1961 to 1965 saw four different coalition governments, all of which were weak. This brought tendencies to stage further coups and counter-movements to prevent such attempts. Immediately after the elections, the October 21 (1961) Protocol prepared by such a group with a disposition to military interventions could only be overcome with the Çankaya Protocol (October 24, 1961) in which political party leaders agreed on the Prime Ministry of İsmet İnönü and Presidency of Cemal Gürsel. As the weak coalition governments could not really fulfill the expectations of the radicals within the Armed Forces, further attempts at military coups were a constant threat. The coup attempts lead by Colonel Talat Aydemir, first on February 22 and 23, 1962, and then on May 20, 1963, failed because of the resistance by Prime Minister İnönü, leaders of other parties and the command echelon in the Armed Forces, in addition to the conflicts within the coup-attempting group itself. Following the second attempt, seven persons, including Aydemir himself, were sentenced to death and executed, and all the military school students, officers and other soldiers related to the attempt were jailed.


Military Memorandum of March 12, 1971

On March 12, 1971, the Chief of General Staff and Commanders in Chief of the Armed Forces carried out a Military Intervention, presenting a memorandum. The memorandum, signed by Chief of Staff Full General Memduh Tağmaç, Commander of Land Forces Full General Faruk Gürler, Commander of Naval Forces Full Admiral Celal Eyiceoğlu, and Commander of Air Forces Full General Muhsin Batur, was presented to President Cevdet Sunay and the Presidents of the Grand Assembly and the Senate, declaring that ‘the Parliament and the Government’ have driven the country into ‘anarchy, sibling fight, and social and economic unrest’, and that they did not carry into practice ‘the reforms foreseen by the Constitution’. The memorandum also declared that the Parliaments [The Grand National Assembly and the Senate] should act with an approach beyond parties, to ‘form a strong and convincing government that shall overcome the present condition of anarchy, carry out the reforms foreseen by the Constitution in a Atatürkist manner, and enact the laws of reform’, and that otherwise the Turkish Armed Forces ‘were determined to directly take over the governance’. The parliament and political parties were not closed and the Constitution was not suspended, but the AP government lead by Süleyman Demirel was made to resign. During the period until the elections on October 14, 1973, the Parliament that was formed through the elections in 1969 was working (and AP had the majority of seats), although it was under the supervision of the Armed Forces. This was virtually an Interim Regime governed by the Armed Forces. Four different technocratic governments were formed during this time (1st and 2nd Governments of Nihat Erim, the Governments of Ferit Melen and Naim Talu).

The fundamental dynamic of crisis that paved the way to the Military Intervention of March 12, 1971 was the acceleration, especially from the second half of the 60s onwards, of radical left social and political movements. Workers, teachers, intellectuals, university youth and skilled middle classes were more and more politicized during this time. With the first crisis of import-substituting industrialization, cracks among the various segments of the capitalist class and a division within AP (the founding of Democratic Party [Demokratik Parti] on December 1970), together with the founding of Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP) on February 1960, led by Alparslan Türkeş, and then of the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi, MNP) on January 1970, led by Necmettin Erbakan, also indicated a crisis within the governing block. By the end of the 1960s, the leftist politicization in Turkey was the main issue of all the power groups, from the bourgeoisie to the political and military elites. AP and Demirel argued that the Constitution of 1961 made the country ungovernable and seeking to overcome the crisis by increasing authoritarianism was no remedy to the dynamics within the Army that were already in support of a military intervention, on the contrary, this tendency further encouraged such groups. Approaching the March 12, 1971 intervention, there were three distinct movements within the Army, all of which foreseeing a military intervention. The first was supporting a military coup to be staged by ‘hearty groups’, which would be followed by a non-capitalist, statist/nationalist/revolutionary path. Such a military coup was planned to be staged on March 9, 1971, and it was later learned that Full Generals Muhsin Batur and Faruk Gürler were also in contact with the planners until the very last moment, but it was not attempted as Batur and Gürler withdrew their support from this plan. The second movement supported the continuation of the modernizing/developmentalist optimism of the 1960 coup, as represented by Muhsin Batur, and demanded the enactment of the 1960 reforms. According to this approach, anarchy and order was the main problem but this could be fixed with economic and social reforms. The third was the approach of Tağmaç, which did not support the reforms, but instead defended authoritarianism through a discourse of law, security and order. This division within the Armed Forces was also the reason behind the fact that an explicit military coup could not be staged and no full military regime was established. In the end, although the Memorandum included both the lines of Batur and Tağmaç, the practices of the 1971 Regime was towards authoritarianism.


The March 12, 1971 Regime drummed out three generals and eight colonels of the Armed Forces on March 15, in order to threaten the tendencies to disobey the military hierarchy. On July 7, 1971, arrests were made for the case that would later be named after Cemal Madanoğlu (Full General in the Military Coup of 1960 and a member of the NUC then) at the Martial Law Court. The case was filed on January 9, 1973, and completed on September 1974, exculpating the defendants. Following this purge in the Armed Forces, an operation began against the leftist movement outside the Armed Forces. On April 17, 1971, martial law was declared on eleven provinces. Strikes were banned, freedom of press was restricted under martial law, and daily newspapers were subjected to temporary shutdowns. In the arrests and tortures that followed, socialists, revolutionary youth organizations and intellectuals were targeted. Many leaders of the revolutionary student movements were killed in military operations. As a result of a vote and approval in the Parliament -in which AP held the majority of seats- of a decision of the martial law court, three revolutionary student leaders, Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan were executed. During the Military Intervention period of 1971, the Labor Party of Turkey (Türkiye İşçi Partisi, TİP) was closed for ‘Kurdism’ and National Order Party was closed for its non-secular views.


The first structural crisis of the import-substituting industrialization policies was overcome for a short while between 1971 and 1973 by lowering the workers’ wages, suppressing the workers’ movements under martial law, and with the foreign currency brought by Turkish people working in Europe.


The most striking action of the Interim Regime of March 12, 1971 was to close the political arena, which had relatively opened after 1960, with a more and more authoritative state structure through constitutional amendments on September 1971 and March 1973.  With the changes in the Constitution made during this time, fundamental rights and liberties, freedom of press and expression, the right to found associations and the right to privacy were limited; personal security was restricted and the time frame for a person to be brought before a judge was extended; the principle of the natural judge was destroyed; the State Security Courts were found; the control of law over executive power was restricted and the judicial independence diminished, while the constitutional judicial authority of the Constitutional Court was limited to formal conditions; fields of activity of the unions and political parties was cut back and the civil servants’ rights to trade unions was revoked; the autonomy of universities and radio and television broadcast was retrieved with a stricter state control over these institutions. Together with these restrictions, some ambiguous concepts such as ‘the integrity of the state with its land and nation’, ‘national security’, ‘public order’ and ‘public morality’ were introduced.


With the constitutional changes carried out by the Interim Regime of March 12, 1971, the political power of the Army increased, centralization and control mechanisms were put into practice in order to prevent non-hierarchical tendencies within the Army. The Commanders of Forces, instead of the representatives of Forces, became members of the National Security Council with the new regulations. The expression stating that the National Security Council ‘declares … to lend assistance to’ the Cabinet, was replaced with the stronger term ‘recommends’. The reasons to declare martial law were expanded. Military jurisdiction was also expanded against civil jurisdiction. It was made possible to try civilians in Military Courts for non-military crimes. With the establishment of the Military High Administrative Court, all relations of military persons with the public governance were placed out of the natural legislation procedures, and the Armed Forces were granted with a considerable autonomy in processes of drumming out, retirement, promotion and assignment. With the Law on the Supreme Military Council, the determinative power in the assignments and promotions of commanders was now in the hands of the military. Court of Exchequer’s auditing over the properties held by the Armed Forces was prevented. In the field of ideology, in face of officers developing new interpretations of Kemalism by combining it with other ideologies, Atatürkism begun to be officially defined and that definition was spread through books and trainings in order to maintain the inner hierarchy and integrity within the Armed Forces.


The intervention staged on March 12, 1971, and the Interim Regime thus established was an attempt to govern the class dynamics in an import-substituting industrialization setting by prioritizing force in a bureaucratic-authoritarian state form.



Military Coup of September 12, 1980

In the early hours of September 12, 1980, the third Military Coup in the history of Turkey was staged in a chain of command through an operation called ‘the Flag Operation’. The stagers of the coup named themselves the National Security Council (NSC). This council consisted of Chief of Staff Full General Kenan Evren, Commander of Land Forces Full General Nurettin Ersin, Commander of Air Forces Full General Tahsin Şahinkaya, Commander of Naval Forces Full Admiral Nejat Tümer and Commander of Gendarmerie Forces Full General Sedat Celasun. Full General Haydar Saltık was appointed as the Secretary General of the Council. The communique of the 1980 Coup d’État emphasized that ‘The State of the Republic of Turkey… is facing traitorous attacks… provoked by external and internal enemies’, ‘the State is brought into a position of non-function of its fundamental organs’, ‘political parties have fallen into fruitless debates’, ‘citizens’ safety of life and property is put in danger’, ‘with reactionary and other pervert ideological ideas… the State has been weakened and deemed incapable’. ‘The aim of the operation is to protect the integrity of the country, to ensure national unity and solidarity, to prevent a possible civil war and a fight among brothers, to re-establish the authority and presence of the state, and to eliminate the reasons that prevent the democratic order from functioning.’ The text was built on the logic of defending the State against the social and political movements which were clearly seen as threats. This communique also stated that the Parliament and the Government are abolished, parliamentary immunities are lifted, martial law was declared throughout the country and that it was now prohibited to leave the country for abroad.


Upon the task given by the NSC, the new government was established by the Ex-Commander of Naval Forces, retired Full Admiral Bülend Ulusu, nine days after the coup. The activities of political parties were first halted immediately and then on October 16, 1981 all parties were closed down. As soon as the Coup was staged, all activities of DİSK (Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey), MİSK (Confederation of Nationalist Trade Unions of Turkey) and the unions constituting them were stopped. The bank accounts of DİSK, MİSK and HAK-İŞ and their member unions were frozen. All strikes and lockouts were cancelled until a further decision. All activities of all associations except Turkish Aviation Association, the Society for the Protection of Children, and the Turkish Red Crescent were stopped.

The National Security Council took on itself all the authority to legislate, including the making of the Constitution. With the Law on the Constituent Assembly, dated June 29, 1981, the Constituent Assembly which was formed of the NSC and its Advisory Council was given the duty to draw the constitution and all necessary laws. All members of the Advisory Council of 160 persons would be selected by the NSC either directly (40 members) or indirectly (from among the candidates named by provincial governors to represent each province). The Advisory Council held its first meeting on October 23, 1981.

The 1980 Coup d’État was both the result of capital accumulation, hegemony and state crises that deepened more and more from mid-1970s onwards, and the ruling block’s answer to these crises. In the language of the dominant classes and the Military, the crisis was expressed as ‘the constitutional order, the safety of life and property was under threat’. The main target of the Military Coup and the Regime were the social and political organizations and unions of the working class. To this end, while the short-term strategy of the state was to execute policies of violence and pressure, their long-term strategy was to restructure the institutional architecture of the state in such a way that it would be impossible for these groups to acquire political power.

The Regime of September 12, 1980 defined the period before it as one of anarchy and terror in which the people had no safety of life and property and aimed to create a climate of fear by heavily punishing the groups that they pointed as the creators of these conditions. Torture under the custody of security forces and in military prisons targeted primarily the cadres of the leftist movement, the Kurds and partially the Turkish nationalist (ülkücü) militants. During the Military Regime of 1980, 650,000 people were held under custody, 210,000 cases were filed, 230,000 people were tried with the prosecution demanding death sentences for 7,000 people, 517 people were convicted to death sentence (the Supreme Military Court approved 124 of the death sentences, and the NSC further approved 50 of these, changing the death penalties of the remaining 74 people to life sentences), and the death sentences for 50 people were executed. 300 people died in questionable ways. It was documented that 171 people died during torture. A total of 299 people died in prisons during this term. These practices of violence, including torture and the execution of death penalties, were at the same time a message of discipline and obedience to the whole society.


During the whole Military Regime period of 1980, a total of 669 laws were passed. The 1980 Regime passed new laws or made serious amendments to existing laws for all fundamental fields, such as political parties, elections, trade unions and collective bargaining agreements, strikes and lockouts, the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, judges and prosecutors, State Security Courts, martial law, etc. A Commission of Constitution was formed within the Advisory Council and this Commission, chaired by Prof. Dr. Orhan Aldıkaçtı, prepared the 1982 Constitution which was finalized by the NSC. At the constitutional referendum held on November 7, 1982, this Constitution was accepted with 91,37 percent of the votes. The Constitution of 1982 consecrated the State and provided it with an absolute priority against the society and the individual. All the fundamental political and union rights and freedoms were limited to unprecedented levels, upon pretexts open to arbitrary interpretations, such as ‘the continuity of the state’, ‘national security’, ‘public order’ or ‘public morality’. In the name of creating a strong state and a strong executional ability, government execution was made dominant against legislation and law. Within the executive power the decision-making mechanisms were brought under either the Prime Minister himself and the institutions that are directly attached to Prime Ministry, or the Presidency and the National Security Council with their ever-increasing authorities, further centralizing the governance. To strengthen the government against legislation, the Military Regime started a governance based on statutory decrees instead of laws. Judicial independence was ruined, and judicial control was disabled. With the provisions on political parties, the parties were prevented from connecting with the society. Political parties were brought under State control and their areas of activity were limited, making it easier to close down a party. The new Electoral Law that prescribes a 10 percent national election threshold sacrificed the principle of just representation to executional stability. Autonomy of universities was destroyed, and universities were brought under the strict control of the Council of Higher Education (YÖK), turning them into State organs.


At the center of the authoritarian State being built by the 1980 Military Regime was the Military. The military bureaucracy was described as the third head of the executive power, together with the government and the president. The NSC was empowered and made to be more influential in every sense, increasing the power of the Military within the structure of membership. While making the Constitution of 1982, NSC members were counted one by one, and the number of civilian and military members were equated with the addition of the Commander of Gendarmerie Forces. The former expression ‘NSC recommends to the government’ was changed into ‘NSC declares to the government’, and the expression that the decisions of the NSC ‘are taken into consideration in the first order by the Cabinet’ was included in the Constitution. These regulations in the Constitution were further strengthened with the Law on National Security in 1983. The context of the concept of national security was ambiguated and excessively broadened to cover all sorts of social, economic, political etc. issues. The martial law commanders were now responsible not towards the Prime Minister but to the Chief of General Staff. The decisions and processes of martial law were brought out of juridical control. It was made easier to declare martial law. After the return to civilian regime, in an amendment to the Law of the Court of Exchequers, military purchases were considered among the exceptions that cannot be audited by the Exchequers. In the same year the Defense Industry Support Fund was founded, and it was deemed free of audition/supervision. This Fund would later be used as an important extra-budgetary source in military purchases.


One of the major actions of the Military Coup and Regime of 1980 was to carry out the transition to a new regime of capital accumulation based on neoliberal policies. The financial measures declared on January 24, 1980, aimed to establish a neoliberal economy. But the strong working-class opposition of the time and the fact that the government was weak prevented these decisions to take force as desired. With the Coup, the Military Regime brought Turgut Özal, who is the mastermind of the January 24 Measures to the directorship of economy in Turkey and put these policies into practice. Destroying the organized force of the working class, with the unions in the first place, was a prerequisite of this move. Thus, the labor organizations that had an independent policy of class, and especially DİSK were targeted by the Military Coup. The directors and representatives of DİSK were taken into custody and tortured, and many of them were imprisoned for many years. In the DİSK legal case in which the prosecution requested the closing of the Union and death sentences for 52 of its directors, 261 unionists and three specialists were convicted to prison sentences ranging from 5 years and 6 months to 15 years 8 months. It was decided that DİSK and its member trade are to be closed and their properties to be confiscated. The case against this decision resulted in 1991 in the exculpation of the accused, DİSK could thus return to its union activities eleven years later. The directors of HAK-İŞ supported the Coup, declared that they do not engage in anarchist activities, and in a short while, in February 1981, their financial assets were reinstated, and they continued their activities. No action was brought against MİSK, whose activities were also halted on September 12, 1980. The activities of Türk-İş (Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions), on the other hand, were not suspended after the September 12, 1980 Coup. Moreover, the directors of Türk-İş provided overt support to the Coup. Türk-İş Secretary General, Sadık Şide, served as the Minister of Social Security at the Coup cabinet. All the capitalist organizations and financiers of the time, including TİSK (Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations), TÜSİAD (Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association), and TOBB (Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey) openly supported the Coup and the Military Regime.


As the Regime of 1980 started off with an analysis of a deep crisis in the State, it first put in place a discourse of sacred state that would re-establish the State’s inner integrity against the politicization in the society, and then a nationalism based on a Turkish-Islamic synthesis to provide social unity and an integrity of society and State against class divisions and conflicts. To this end, they resorted to Atatürkism as an articulating metadiscourse. The Regime of 1971 had found it especially important to develop and spread among the officers a standardized, official version of Atatürkism in order to establish ideological integrity within the Army. 1980 Regime carried this a step further and embarked on building Atatürkism as everyone’s ideology ‘in which it is possible to unite in the principles of Atatürk, away from ideological-dogmatic perversities’, and not only for the Armed Forces but for the whole State and society. In the field of ideology and culture, the 1980 Regime again destroyed the relative autonomy of state institutions and aimed at an absolute control by the State. In this sense, it leaned on nationalist and conservative intellectual who had an authoritarian understanding of democracy. The Regime formed an organic relationship with fascist, nationalist, conservative intellectuals who had come together at Aydınlar Ocağı (‘the House of the Intellectuals’) during 1970s.


The Military Regime continued until the Grand National Assembly of Turkey re-assembled on November 24, 1983, following the elections on November 6 the same year. The Coup d’État that took place on September 12, 1980, and the Military Regime thereby established have left their mark on the history and politics of Turkey not only for the dimensions of the violence they exerted, and the human rights violations carried out, but also with the fact that the political, economic, and social order they built have been affecting the country for the decades that followed.