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1961 - Menderes Coup

Turkey's military had ousted four civilian governments since 1960. From the time of the Ottoman Empire, to the creation of the Turkish Republic by Atatürk, and on through the 21st century, the Turkish military has played a substantiative role in Turkish politics. The military staged three coups from 1960 to 1980. The creation of the 1982 constitution saw a shift from a military to civilian based government. However, the military has remained a strong presence within Turkey.

The first of these coups occured in 1961 and was known as the Menderes Coup. Factionalization and polarization between left and right-wing extremists led to a general breakdown in internal security within the repblic. In response, President Adnan Menderes pushed a series of restrictive measures aimed at curbing dissent in urban areas and restricting active opposition by other parties and interest groups; the Grand National Assembly approved these regulations and enacted them between 1954 and 1957. During this time, censorship was placed on newspapers and radio stations and opposition parties were barred form access to the state radio.

Menderes recognized the need for support from the military. He actively courted it, promoting officers freely, but placing officers in high ranking positions based on loyalty to the prime minister and not on merit. It did not take the remaining senior officers, loyal to their Kemalist legacy, very long to realize that the military was fast becoming a tool of the Menderes regime. Instead of the close links with the Republican People's Party enjoyed during the years of Atatürk and Inönü, the second president of the Republic of Turkey. The military was called on in the spring of 1960 to suppress meetings of the political opposition and quell student protest demonstrations. Menderes attempted to employ the army as a police force to destroy the opposition party.

Atatürk had always insisted that the military forces, as a national institution above partisanship and factionalism, should stay out of politics. The military leadership traditionally had subscribed to this viewpoint, with the proviso that a major role of the armed forces was to act as guardian of the constitution and Kemalism. By 1960, with the military already deeply involved in political affairs because of the government's use of martial law to enforce its policies, the senior command concluded that the government had departed from Kemalist principles and that the republic was in imminent danger of disintegration.

The military was forced to overthrow Menderes. His politicization of the military in this martial law role undermined two of the traditional heroes of the military: the Republican People's Party, the party of Atatürk to which the military owed special and long-standing allegiance, and Ismet Inönü, who actively and passionately opposed the Menderes regime and whom Menderes ordered silenced, barred from public political activity. The Republican People's Party was backed by the military on the one side, and the Democratic Party of Menderes was on the other.

On May 27, 1960, Turkish army units, under the direction of the chief of General Staff, Cemal Gürsel, seized the principal government buildings and communications centers and arrested President Bayar, Prime Minister Menderes, and most of the DP representatives in the Grand National Assembly, as well as a large number of other public officials. Those arrested were charged with abrogating the constitution and instituting a dictatorship.

The coup was accomplished with little violence and was accepted quickly throughout the country. Following the 1961 coup, the Committee of National Unity [CNU] took power. It was led by General Cemal Gürsel and consisted of thirty-eight officers, ranging in rank from general to captain and in age from 65 to 27. The committee acted as supreme authority, appointing a cabinet, initially consisting of five officers and thirteen civilians, to carry out executive functions. The number of civilians in the cabinet, however, was later reduced to three. General Gürsel, who had fought at Gallipoli under Atatürk, temporarily assumed the positions of president, prime minister, and defense minister. At the outset, Gürsel announced that the committee's rule would be of an interim nature and that government would be returned to civilian hands at an early date.

The Committee of National Unity's stated purpose was to return the Turkish Republic to the democratic reforms of Atatürk. One of the first acts of the National Unity Committee, ruling through its executive agent, the civilian Council of Ministers, was to abrogate the Constitution of 1924 and commission a special task force to write a new constitution.

The most pressing problems the CNU faced in the first months after the coup were economic. The ousted regime had been responsible for inflation and heavy debt, and emergency austerity measures had to be taken to stabilize the economy. An economic planning agency, the State Planning Organization, was established to study social and economic conditions and to draw up the country's five-year development plans.

In January 1961, a constituent assembly was formed in which the CNU participated. This interim legislature produced a new constitution, which, after much debate, it ratified in May and submitted to a popular referendum. On 9 July 1961 the new constitution was the subject of a national referendum and was ratified by a 61 percent plurality. This constitution, which created Turkey's so-called Second Republic, contained a number of substantial departures from the 1924 constitution but continued to embody the principles of Kemalism. The new constitution was approved by 60 percent of the electorate. The large opposition vote was a disappointment to the CNU and showed that sympathy for the DP persisted, particularly in socially conservative small towns and rural constituencies.

Meanwhile, the trial of some 600 former government officials and DP functionaries had begun in October 1960 on the island of Yassiada in the Bosporus. All but about 100 of those tried were found guilty, and fifteen death sentences were pronounced. Partly in response to public appeals for leniency, the death sentences of former President Bayar and eleven others were commuted to life imprisonment, but Menderes and two former cabinet ministers were hanged.

National elections were held on 15 October 1961 and were carried out with no civilian or military interference, signaling that the democratic experiment in Turkey was still alive. Fourteen political parties offered candidates in the October 1961 election, but only four won seats in the bicameral Grand National Assembly created under the new constitution. The results gave the CHP 173 seats in the lower house--the 450-member National Assembly--and only thirty-six in the 150-member Senate. The Justice Party (Adalet Partisi--AP), generally recognized as the heir of the DP, obtained 158 seats in the lower house and seventy in the upper. The remaining seats were divided between the New Turkey Party and the Republican Peasants' Nation Party, subsequently renamed the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Haraket Partisi--MHP). The New Turkey Party was led by onetime DP dissidents who had broken with Menderes in the mid-1950s; the MHP attracted militant rightists. Because neither of the two larger parties commanded a majority, formation of a broad coalition either between the two larger parties or between one of them and the two smaller parties would be necessary.

Turkey now entered a new phase of its political life, the era of coalition government. No party had won an absolute majority of the seats in the Grand National Assembly, and the National Unity Committee was very much concerned that without one party firmly in control, a return to the pre-1960 social and political chaos might happen. However, when Ismet Inönü agreed to serve as Prime Minister and General Gürsel retired and was elected by the Grand National Assembly as President of the Republic, the military willingly handed over the reigns of government

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Page last modified: 30-07-2013 13:27:20 ZULU