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ANALYSIS: The original sin of modern Turkish politics

The coup of 27 May, 1960 set a precedent for later military interventions and constituted a permanent military tutelage in Turkey
File photo shows protesters carrying a large Turkish flag during a demonstration (AFP)

“I loved that man, your honour. Do you know what love is?” said Ayhan Aydan, an opera singer, in the courthouse where her lover Adnan Menderes, Turkey's first democratically elected prime minister, was being tried. On 27 May, 1960, the first coup of the Turkish Republic toppled the Democrat Party government. The Democrat Party came to power in Turkey’s first free elections in 1950, after 27 years of single-party rule that governed the country with an iron fist.

Adnan Menderes, along with two cabinet ministers, was sentenced to death after dozens of trials that took place in Yassıada, a small island located in the Marmara Sea. Due to her extra-marital affair with Menderes, Aydan was urged to give a testimony in the trial known as the “Baby Case”. Menderes was accused of killing the new-born baby he had with Aydan.

The junta leadership was desperately seeking to tarnish the reputation of Menderes in the eyes of his mainly conservative base. They first asked his wife to file an adultery case against Menderes. The army officers even obtained a fatwa from the Mufti of Istanbul at the time, who declared, “Adultery is the biggest sin. The punishment of this greatest sin is stoning.”

However Menderes's wife refused to give testimony against her husband, like her husband's mistress. Resisting threats, these two brave and noble women paved Menderes' acquittal in the “Baby Case”. Yet, he was found guilty on other charges, such as violating the constitution, and was hanged on 17 September, 1961.

Despite all these attempts to demonise Menderes, he remained a hero and a martyr in the hearts and minds of his supporters. He was elected under the slogan “Enough, it is the peoples' turn to speak,” and initially endorsed economic, political and social liberalisation. Menderes has always been revered by the leaders of Turkey's centre-right parties, who portrayed him as a heroic defender of political and economic rights and interests of the so-called “common man”.

Today, one can see Menderes' pictures carried by the supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during election rallies. AKP is the latest political party in Turkey that claims to be heir to Menderes' tradition.

In fact, on 14 May 2015, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu launched a project to turn Yassıada, the infamous island where the Menderes was tried, into  “Democracy and Freedom Island”. During the opening ceremony Davutoglu said that a “democracy museum” would be built on Yassıada to commemorate the “heroes of democracy”. “The court hall, where Menderes, then-president Celal Bayar, and other defendants stood trial, will be preserved as it is and handed down to future generations, so that nobody will ever dare to make a similar attempt,” he added.

While there is almost a consensus in Turkey about denouncing the 1960 coup nowadays, similar to the 2013 Egyptian coup d'etat, it was celebrated on the streets by the mainly the secular urban elite and labelled as a progressive “revolution” for decades. Strikingly, Mohammed Morsi became the first democratically elected president sentenced to death in the Middle East since Menderes.

The process that ended with the coup started in 1959, when the rising tension between the ruling Democrat Party and the Republican People's Party (CHP) reached its zenith. Founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, CHP was the ruling party during the despotic single-party period that ended with the election victory of the Democrat Party.

The opposition was accusing the Democrat Party of endorsing authoritarian measures, violating the constitution, corruption, and oppression. The opposition newspaper of the time, Dunya, portrayed Menderes of such “demagoguery of the Ottoman days when the Sultan exploited religious feeling to divert attention from a worsening internal situation”.

As the political rift between the ruling and opposition parties widened, street protests against the government mounted. The government tried to suppress the opposition with a crackdown through shutting down newspapers, jailing opposition figures and journalists, and resorting authoritarian means against the protesters.

“Apparently, not having any liberal predecessor, Menderes was no liberal democrat when he faced vocal opposition," says Dogan Gurpınar, a historian at Istanbul Technical University. “Menderes did not refrain from using the extensive powers which he was granted  by the legislative and the executive branches in the constitution inherited from the Kemalist regime. He used them excessively, especially as opposition to his government mounted and became more aggressive in the late 1950s.”

That being said, Cemil Kocak, a historian at Sabancı University, reminds us that the accusations against Menderes were polished and exaggerated by a propaganda machine that aimed to pave the way for the coup and later provide legitimacy to the army.

“Three heads of the villain gang, Celal Bayar (the president), Adnan Menderes (the prime minister), and Refik Koraltan (the speaker of the parliament) were happily watching the brutal massacres conducted by Namık Gedik (the interior minister) against the Turkish youngsters,” Kocak writes. “Those creatures who buried the youngsters alive in fridges and graves, then put the dead bodies into meat grinders and gave the meat to dogs, cannot be humans,” he says in a best-selling propaganda book that was titled The Victory of the Turkish Army: Bloodless Revolution.

Needless to say, neither of these claims was true.

As political turmoil deepened, NATO allies started to distance themselves from Menderes' government. Curiously enough, it was Menderes who moved Turkey into the Western bloc and made Turkey a NATO member in 1952, in return for Turkey's participation in the Korean War.

On 30 April, 1960, The New York Times published a story with the title, “Menderes' Words Worry US Aides: Washington Fears Turkish Premier's Tone to Student Foes Widens Opposition.” The story highlighted that Menderes framed the protests against him as a conspiracy and called the protestors “tools” and “fanatic party followers”. On 16 May, 1960, “Menderes Vows He Won't Resign: Says Turkey Will Vote Soon - Foes and Backers Clash as He Speaks in Izmir,” reported the daily in a full-page article.

On 25 April, 1960, an editorial in the daily titled “The Menderes Regime” read: “The Turkish Government's suspension of normal political activities has raised grave fears in the minds of Turkey's friends ... Mr Inonu [leader of CHP and the previous prime minister] said last week in the debate in the Grand National Assembly on suspension of parties - censored in the Turkish press - “If you go on like this, even I shall not be able to save you.” Days before the coup, on 5 May, 1960, US Ambassador Fletcher Warren rejected rumours that a US envoy had talked with Menderes and declared that the US remained impartial between Menderes and the protestors.

The coup was announced with a short address to the nation over radio. In this very short statement, the new military rulers of Turkey swore faith and allegiance to NATO and CENTO. On 28 May 1960, the day after the coup, Warren paid a visit to the coup leader, General Cemal Gursel. Having solid experience observing coups while serving as a diplomat in Latin America, he told the junta leader, Gursel that this had been “by far the most precise, most efficient, and most rapid coup” he had ever seen.

On 29 May, 1960, the New York Times reported from Turkey, with the headline “General Gursel Heads Turkish Cabinet; Lifts Repression: People Hail Regime With Joy - Journalists and Students Freed From Prison.”

The military coup was cherished by the secular-military elite, the media and academics were enthusiastic to whitewash the practices of the junta government, while the supporters of Menderes' were silenced through sham trials and persecution. However, it didn't take long before some of the coup supporters were seen as a threat to the junta government.

A political purge started at universities and 147 professors were expelled after a witch-hunt based on arbitrary charges - a renowned political scientist was fired for being homosexual. Şener Akturk notes that the junta government enacted discriminatory ethnic politics that were “reminiscent of the one party regime prior to 1950”.

Only a couple of days after the coup, 485 Kurdish notables were arrested and were put in a camp for attempting “to establish a Kurdish government” and working for the Democrat Party, which was accused for supporting these activities. Gursel, the junta leader, once said “wherever you see a Kurd, spit on his face,” and is rumoured to have considered executing more than 2,500 Kurdish notables and politicians.

Meanwhile, the international backing of the junta government remained intact. Gursel was described as “a political moderate” and the 1960 coup was labelled “the bloodless revolution” in the obituary that was published on 15 September, 1966 in The New York Times. He was also praised lavishly by Cyrus L Sulzberger, a prize-winning foreign correspondent and foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times who has been accused of being a CIA asset by Carl Bernstein.

Bernstein was an investigative reporter for The Washington Post who had helped to uncover the Watergate scandal. In a column published on 13 February, 1966, Sulzberger wrote: “The Turkish Army has always played an important role but, on the occasions when it has felt called to exercise political influence, it has always moved in liberal direction.”

Yet, the overwhelming majority of Turks, who for decades have a proven track record of casting their vote to the party sanctioned by the army, seem to disagree with Sulzberger's reading of Turkish politics. Turkey witnessed several coups and military interventions that targeted almost all segments of the society - Kurds, Islamists, Alevis, leftists and liberals, and left behind a bloody and painful history.

Today, the 1960 coup is perceived as the original sin in modern Turkish politics that set a precedent for later military interventions and constituted a permanent military tutelage in Turkey.

“The military restructured the state bodies to render the bureaucracy and the judiciary to run autonomously from the ruling governments. A tutelary regime that oversees the running of the government, the military [orchestrates] the state,” says Gurpınar, adding: “That system had prevailed for four to five decades until its demise in late 2000s."

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