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Multi-Party Politics - 1950-1980

Modern Turkey has a democratic tradition marred by several periods of instability and authoritarian rule. One-party rule (Republican People's Party-CHP) established by Ataturk in 1923 lasted until elections in 1950. There were both continuities and breakdowns in key political areas of the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the modern Republican era, especially with reference to cultural, institutional, and elite politics perspectives covering the Ottoman and the single-party period (1923-50). The Tanzimat reforms as they relate to the Republican regime's ground-breaking changes of the early 1930s were key, along with the process of transition to a multi-party democracy after the Second World War.

Prior to 1950, the Republic of Turkey was essentially a one-party state ruled by the Republican People's Party, which had been created by Atatürk to implement the Six Arrows of Kemalism. Although there had been abortive experiments with "loyal opposition" parties in the mid-1920s and in 1930, it was not until 1946 that the CHP permitted political parties to form and contest elections, albeit in a politically controlled environment. The Democrat Party was founded in 1946 by CHP members who were dissatisfied with the authoritarian style of the CHP but who otherwise supported the party's Kemalist principles. The DP emphasized the need to end various restrictions on personal freedom so that Turkey could become a democracy. Reform of laws governing political parties and electoral activities--measures that would enable the DP to compete on an equal basis with the CHP--were enacted prior to the 1950 parliamentary elections. Consequently, those elections were the first free ones since the founding of the republic in 1923. The DP won a large majority of seats in the assembly and thus took over the government from the CHP.

The Democrat Party then governed Turkey until 1960, when growing economic problems and internal political tensions culminated in a military coup. The DP retained control of the government throughout the 1950s, a period during which it enacted legislation that restricted news media freedom and various civil liberties. As the DP steadily became less tolerant of dissent, the CHP gradually moved in the opposite direction, abandoning its authoritarian stance and becoming an advocate of civil rights. The DP's efforts to suppress opposition to its policies provoked a political crisis that culminated in the May 1960 military coup. A new constitution was written, and civilian government was reinstated with the convening of the Grand National Assembly (GNA) in 1961. This constitution established a National Security Council (NSC) composed of the president; the prime minister and other key ministers; the Chief of the Turkish General Staff; and representatives of the army, air force, and navy.

The DP subsequently was dissolved, but the Justice Party, which was established in 1961, was widely perceived as its successor and attracted most of its supporters. In the 1961 parliamentary elections that led to the restoration of civilian government, the Justice Party won the second largest number of seats and thus established itself as the principal competitor of the CHP, which had won a plurality of seats. In the subsequent nineteen years, the rivalry between the Justice Party and the CHP remained a significant feature of Turkish politics. Although both parties proclaimed their loyalty to Kemalist ideals, they evolved distinct ideological positions. Süleyman Demirel, who became leader of the Justice Party in 1964, favored economic policies that benefited private entrepreneurs and industrialists. In contrast, Bülent Ecevit, who became leader of the CHP in 1965, believed in a form of democratic socialism that included government intervention aimed at regulating private business and protecting workers and consumers. The views of these two men and the positions of their respective parties became increasingly polarized after 1972.

Coalition governments, dominated by the CHP, ruled Turkey for the next 5 years. In 1965 and 1969, the Justice Party (JP), led by Suleyman Demirel, won sizable majorities of GNA seats and ruled alone.

Political agitation surfaced in 1968 and increased as left- and right-wing extremists took to the streets. In March 1971, senior military leaders grew dissatisfied with the JP's inability to cope with domestic violence. In a so-called "coup by memorandum," they called for the JP's replacement by a more effective government.

Demirel's government resigned and was replaced by a succession of "above party" governments, which ruled until the October 1973 general elections. Those elections saw the CHP reemerge as the largest party and its chairman, Bulent Ecevit, become prime minister of a coalition government composed of the CHP and the conservative, religiously oriented, National Salvation Party. In 1974, the coalition faltered. Ecevit resigned, early elections were called, and a prolonged government crisis ensued.

From 1975 to 1980, unstable coalition governments ruled, led alternately by Demirel and Ecevit. By the end of 1979, an accelerating decline in the economy, coupled with mounting violence from the extreme left and right, led to increasing instability. Demirel's government began an economic stabilization program in early 1980, but by summer, political violence was claiming more than 20 victims daily. A severely divided GNA was unable to elect a new president or to pass other legislation to cope with the crisis.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:06 ZULU