Crisis in Turkish Democracy

Turkey Table of Contents

The Demirel government's majority in the Grand National Assembly gradually dissipated after the 1969 general election as factions within the circle of its initial supporters regrouped in new political constellations. In 1970 three small rightist parties that had usually cooperated with the government merged as the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi--MSP), an explicitly Islamic-oriented party that imposed politically compromising demands on Demirel as the price of their continued support. Some former AP members deserted the AP in 1971 to form the more right-wing Democratic Party. Other, more liberal AP members, dissatisfied with Demirel's concessions to the right, defected from the party and sat as independents. As a result of these shifts, the Demirel government lost its parliamentary majority and, in the eyes of critics, forfeited its right to govern the country. Acts of politically motivated violence and terrorism escalated in frequency and intensity. Unrest was fueled in part by economic distress, perceptions of social inequities, and the slowness of reform, but protest was increasingly directed at Turkey's military and economic ties to the West.

Politics and Elections in the 1970s

On March 12, 1971, the armed forces chiefs, headed by army commander General Faruk Gürler, presented a memorandum to President Sunay demanding the installation of a "strong and credible government." The military leaders warned civilian officials that the armed forces would be compelled to take over the administration of the state once again unless a government were found that could curb the violence and implement the economic and social reforms, including land reform, stipulated in the 1961 constitution. Demirel resigned the same day. The incident was referred to as the "coup by memorandum."

After consultation with Gürler and the other armed forces chiefs, Sunay asked Nihat Erim, a university professor and CHP centrist, to form a "national unity, above-party government" that would enlist the support of the major parties. Erim led the first of a series of weak caretaker cabinets that governed Turkey until the October 1973 elections.

A joint session of the Grand National Assembly was convened in March 1973 to elect a successor to President Sunay. Many observers had assumed that General Gürler, whose candidacy had the open backing of the armed forces, would be elected without serious opposition, but Demirel was determined to resist what he considered dictation by the military. The AP nominated Tekin Ariburun, chairman of the Senate, to oppose Gürler. After seven ballots, Gürler and Ariburun withdrew. When Sunay's term expired on March 28, Ariburun, in his capacity as Senate chairman, became acting president under the constitution. On April 6, deputies and senators in the Grand National Assembly elected Fahri Korutürk president on the fifteenth ballot. Significantly, the new president, a seventy-year-old retired admiral who had served as an independent member of the Senate since 1968, had a direct tie to Atatürk, who reportedly had conferred on him the name Korutürk, meaning "Protect the Turks."

In the 1973 election, Ecevit's CHP increased its support by more than 1 million votes by calling for redistribution of wealth through taxation and social services, rural development, land reform, continued state direction of economic activity, and a general amnesty for political prisoners detained under martial law. However, holding only 185 seats, the party failed to gain an overall majority in the Grand National Assembly. The AP, which saw its share of the vote decline to 30 percent, retained only 149 seats. A large segment of its right-wing support was siphoned off by the MSP and the Democratic Party, which won forty-eight seats and forty-five seats, respectively. The Republican Reliance Party (RRP), formed by the merger of centrist groups that had seceded earlier from the CHP, won thirteen seats. The MHP took three seats.

The most significant consequence of the 1973 election was that the Democratic Party and the MSP held the balance of power in parliament, and it was unlikely that any coalition government could be formed without the participation of one or both of them. The politicians in the Democratic Party strongly resented the warnings periodically handed down to elected officials by military leaders, but also disapproved of Demirel on personal as well as political grounds. The MSP was led by Necmettin Erbakan, who had been leader of the proscribed New Order Party. The MSP was regarded as a revival of that party under a new name. The principal plank in the MSP's platform was the restoration of Islamic law and practice in Turkey. The party sought improved relations with other Muslim countries and less reliance on the West, yet was also ardently anticommunist. Advocating direct election of the president and the strengthening of executive authority, the MSP, while upholding the right to private property, opposed the liberal economic policies favored by the AP.

In January 1974, Ecevit, leader of the party founded by Atatürk, reached a short-lived agreement with Erbakan, the head of an Islamic revivalist party, to join in a coalition government in which Erbakan would be Ecevit's deputy prime minister. In September the MSP pulled out of the coalition. Ecevit remained prime minister at the head of another caretaker government while Korutürk vainly tried to interest Demirel in joining with the CHP in a government of national unity. In November, Korutürk persuaded Sadi Irmak, an elderly senator and an independent, to preside over a nonparty government and prepare the country for an early general election. Irmak's failure to obtain a parliamentary vote of confidence created a parliamentary crisis that left Turkey without a stable, majority-based government for more than a year, during which time economic conditions continued to deteriorate, fanning unrest around the country. Late in 1974, four of the five right-of-center parties in the Grand National Assembly--the AP, MSP, MHP, and RRP--formed an opposition bloc, called the National Front. In March 1975, the National Front parties joined in a minority coalition government under Demirel's premiership. Despite its ineffectiveness, the National Front coalition managed to struggle along for two years, maintaining a slim parliamentary majority dependent on support from independents.

Trading on Ecevit's enormous popularity, in the 1977 election the CHP increased its share of the vote to more than 40 percent and remained the largest party in the Grand National Assembly. However, the 213 seats that it won were still insufficient to form a single-party government. The AP had also improved its standing by taking back some of the votes lost to other right-wing parties in 1973; it returned 189 deputies. MSP representation was cut in half, to twenty-four seats, and the Democratic Party was reduced to one seat. The MHP, however, nearly doubled its vote and elected sixteen deputies. Despite its electoral success, the CHP failed to form a governing coalition.

At length Demirel put together another right-of-center government, linking the AP with the MSP and the MHP in a coalition that depended on a four-seat majority. But the inducements that he offered to assure cooperation caused concern within the liberal wing of his own party. Under the arrangement, responsibility for key areas of concern--public order, the economy, and social reform--was divided among the three party leaders. Demirel was assigned internal security, Erbakan the economy, and Türkes social affairs, including education. Each leader expected to exercise exclusive authority in his particular area, but the arrangement soon proved unworkable. Meanwhile, groups identified with one of the coalition partners, the MHP, were among the principal instigators of the mounting political violence.

Anger and frustration at the government's ineffectiveness in dealing with the economy and restoring public order led to an erosion of support from liberal AP deputies. On the last day of 1977, the Demirel government was defeated on a vote of confidence in which a dozen AP deputies sided with the CHP opposition. The party leaders having ruled out a "grand coalition," President Korutürk turned to Ecevit to lead a new government, which was backed by a four-seat parliamentary majority.

The Ecevit administration was crisis-ridden from the start. The prime minister's attempt to combine regard for civil liberties with tougher law-and-order measures satisfied no one, least of all the military and the police. In December 1978, the government was forced to proclaim martial law in thirteen provinces in reaction to a serious outbreak of sectarian violence. The calm imposed by martial law was only temporary, and in April 1979, the government extended legal restrictions.

Ecevit resigned in October 1979, after the CHP lost ground to the AP in by-elections, and advised President Korutürk to summon Demirel to replace him. Demirel rejected Ecevit's subsequent proposal for a "grand coalition" and chose instead to put together a technocratic government whose members were selected for their competence rather than their political affiliation. Subsidies to state enterprises were reduced as part of a plan for restructuring, but attempts to rationalize the workforce and control labor costs were challenged by the trade unions in a series of strikes. Demirel countered by extending martial law still further, imposing severe curbs on union activity, and restricting public assembly. Meanwhile, military leaders made no secret of their uneasiness at the growing influence that religious sectarianism was having on politics in obvious defiance of the constitution.

President Korutürk's seven-year term in office expired in April 1980. After 100 ballots, the joint session of the Grand National Assembly failed to agree on a successor. Korutürk retired on schedule, and the chairman of the Senate, Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil, was installed as acting president of the republic. Çaglayangil could do little more than provide the signature necessary for the enactment of legislation.

Conflict and Diplomacy: Cyprus and Beyond

The historical distrust between Turkey and Greece was compounded during the 1970s by the unfolding Cyprus dispute and conflicting claims in the Aegean Sea. Problems arising from the relationship between Turkish- and Greek-speaking Cypriots on the island had produced a pattern of confrontation between the two countries during the previous decade.

In July 1974, the president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, demanded withdrawal of Greek army officers assigned to the National Guard on the well-founded charge that they were using their position to subvert his government. In reaction, Athens engineered an anti-Makarios coup, which was carried out successfully by conspirators planning union with Greece. In Ankara, Prime Minister Ecevit condemned the coup as constituting a direct threat to Cyprus's Turkish minority. At the UN, the Turkish representative stated that his government had determined that Greece's direct involvement in the coup was aimed at the annexation of Cyprus in violation of the 1960 independence agreement guaranteed by Turkey, Greece, and Britain. He stressed that Turkey had a clear responsibility under the agreement to protect the rights of the Turkish Cypriot community.

Between July 20 and 22, 1974, some 30,000 Turkish troops, supported by air and naval units, were dropped or landed on Cyprus in the Kyrenia area and advanced toward Nicosia, the Cypriot capital. By the time a UN-sponsored cease-fire went into effect on July 22, Turkish troops controlled the twenty-kilometer-long Nicosia-Kyrenia road and occupied territory on both sides of it, in some places thirty kilometers deep, in an area that had a large Turkish Cypriot population.

The discredited Greek government fell within days as a result of the Cyprus imbroglio. Meeting in Geneva on July 30, the foreign ministers of the three guaranteeing powers--Turan Günes of Turkey, James Callaghan of Britain, and Georgios Mavros representing the new provisional Greek government--accepted the establishment of a buffer zone between the two sides on Cyprus, patrolled by UN forces. They agreed to meet again at Geneva in a week's time to work out terms for a constitutional government that would be representative of both communities on the island.

Despite the cease-fire and a UN Security Council resolution calling for the phased reduction of hostile forces on Cyprus, the Turks continued to land reinforcements. In the week between the cease-fire and the first Geneva foreign ministers' conference, they pushed Greek Cypriot forces to the western extremity of the Kyrenia Range and consolidated their positions around Nicosia. Glafcos Clerides, acting president of Cyprus, and Rauf Denktas, leader of the Turkish-Cypriot community, attended the second session of the Geneva talks, held August 8-14. Denktas rejected the notion of communal autonomy within a federal system favored by Greece and the Greek Cypriot authorities, proposing instead the creation of a single autonomous Turkish region in the northern third of the island, a suggestion Clerides refused to consider. Although Turkey backed the Turkish Cypriot demand for regional autonomy, Günes, speaking for his government, offered an alternative plan that would have allowed the Turkish Cypriots the same amount of land by halving their holdings in the north and creating several autonomous Turkish enclaves elsewhere on the island. The Günes plan would have sharply reduced the number of refugees from both communities. Talks broke down, however, when Günes abruptly rejected a request from Mavros and Clerides for a three-day adjournment to enable them to communicate the Turkish proposal to their respective governments.

Two hours after the collapse of the Geneva talks, Turkish forces on Cyprus moved out of the Kyrenia bridgehead to cut off the northeastern third of the island. After three days of fighting, Clerides accepted a Turkish cease-fire offer that left the Turks in control of all territory north of a line that ran from Lefka in the west to Famagusta in the east. Ecevit held that this division should form the basis for two autonomous regions within a federal state. In February 1975, the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus was established in the northern region with Denktas as president. In 1983 this entity was constituted as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). To date, only Turkey has granted official recognition to the TRNC.

The partition of Cyprus created about 200,000 refugees out of a population of about 600,000. About 10,000 Turkish Cypriot refugees from enclaves in the south were flown to northern Cyprus from British bases by way of Turkey. Greek Cypriot authorities protested this action and charged that at the same time the Turks were sending in settlers from Anatolia to colonize areas where Greek Cypriots had been dispossessed.

Relations between Turkey and Greece had already been tense before the Cyprus crisis as a consequence of the continuing dispute over competing rights in the Aegean region. Tensions heightened after March 1974, when Greek drillers struck oil off the island of Thasos. Given the dependence of both countries on oil imports, this development brought into focus a range of outstanding regional disputes: the demarcation of the continental shelf for the purpose of establishing seabed mineral rights, extension of territorial waters and airspace, and the militarization of Greek islands off the Turkish coast. A few months earlier, in late 1973, Turkey had granted oil concessions in several Aegean seabed areas, some of which were on part of the continental shelf claimed by Greece.

In January 1975, Greece submitted a claim to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for sole rights to the continental shelf. Greece claimed seabed rights off each of the several hundred Greek islands in the Aegean, some of them no more than a few nautical miles from the Turkish coast. Greece also unilaterally attempted to extend its territorial waters from six nautical miles to the twelve nautical miles accepted elsewhere in the world and prohibited Turkish overflights in those areas. Prime Minister Irmak responded that it was "unthinkable" that Turkey would accept the Aegean as a "Greek lake" and charged that Greek claims and alleged Greek militarization of the Aegean were in contravention of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. However, Greece maintained that it had primary responsibility for the defense of the Aegean as part of its NATO commitments.

During the summer of 1976, Turkish naval escorts confronted Greek warships when the latter challenged a Turkish vessel engaged in seismic research on the seabed in disputed waters between the Turkish islands of Gökçeada (Imroz) and Bozca Ada (Tenedos). For a brief period, war between the two NATO allies seemed imminent. Although Turkey and Greece subsequently agreed to settle outstanding disputes through negotiation, troop alerts and naval demonstrations were repeated the following year. Ecevit and Greek prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis met in Switzerland in March 1978 to find a mutually acceptable framework for resolving their differences. Two months later, they met again in Washington to discuss issues of bilateral interest. At these meetings, the two leaders affirmed their mutual wish to find peaceful solutions to their unresolved disputes, but relations between the two countries remained strained.

In February 1975, the United States Congress imposed an arms embargo on Turkey on the grounds that United States-supplied military equipment had been used illegally during the Cyprus operation. In June Turkey confirmed that twenty United States installations in Turkey would be subject to a "new situation" unless negotiations were opened on their future status. President Gerald Ford urged Congress to reconsider the arms embargo, citing the damage it would do to vital United States interests in the eastern Mediterranean. Angered by the defeat in Congress the following month of a measure to lift the embargo, the Turkish government announced the abrogation of the 1969 defense cooperation treaty with the United States and placed United States installations, mainly communications and monitoring stations, under Turkish control. This action, however, did not affect the only United States combat unit in Turkey, an aircraft squadron based in Incirlik under NATO command.

President Ford signed legislation in October that partially lifted the embargo, allowing the release of arms already purchased by Turkey. In 1978 the administration of President Jimmy Carter succeeded in persuading Congress to end the embargo, although an amendment to the Security Aid Act required periodic review of conditions as a prerequisite to continued military assistance. Shortly thereafter, Turkey allowed United States installations to reopen under Turkish supervision while a completely new defense cooperation pact was negotiated.

In 1980 United States military assistance to Turkey amounted to US$250 million, and economic aid to about US$200 million. The United States also joined other countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in pledging emergency credits in a bid to halt Turkey's slide into bankruptcy during the financial crisis of the late 1970s.

The Economy: An Unresolved Issue

The Turkish economy was severely hurt by the increase in oil prices after 1973. Conditions deteriorated over the next several years, reaching the crisis level by 1977. Inflation reached a rate exceeding 50 percent that year, while unemployment was unofficially estimated at as high as 30 percent of the available workforce. Domestic industries also lost ground in export markets because of increases in the cost of raw materials and energy. Turkey's trade deficit reached US$4 billion in 1977, contributing to a balance of payments deficit nearly five times the 1974 level. Becoming skeptical of Turkey's ability to repay existing debts, a number of foreign creditors refused to extend further loans. As a result, the country virtually ran out of foreign exchange to meet its immediate commitments and was faced with national bankruptcy, which was averted only when the Central Bank intervened by suspending payments for many imports and, in effect, forced credit from foreign exporters.

Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF--see Glossary), the Demirel government belatedly announced such measures as a 10 percent devaluation of the currency and substantial increases of some government-subsidized prices. By the end of 1977, Turkey had accumulated a total external debt of more than US$11 billion. The Ecevit government came to power in January 1978 with a stabilization program that essentially had had to be approved by the IMF and the OECD. The plan included incentives for foreign investment and further price adjustments to restrain domestic demand. An international consortium of six banks collaborated in restructuring the Turkish debt and arranged for a US$500 million loan to the Central Bank for economic development. Subsidies to state-directed enterprises were cut, but Ecevit insisted on increased public spending for employment and regional development, which he argued were required to maintain "domestic peace."

Despite the stabilization program, another major devaluation of the Turkish lira (for value of the Turkish lira--see Glossary), and rescheduling of the foreign debt, there were no clear signs in 1978 that economic recovery was under way. In fact, austerities imposed under the program had the opposite effect to what was intended. Because of energy conservation efforts and restrictions imposed on imports of raw materials, industrial production fell. Consequently, exports lagged and unemployment continued to increase. State enterprises registered losses of about US$2 billion for the year. Because of a lack of confidence in the government, the stabilization program failed to attract new investment from abroad.

On returning to office in November 1979, Demirel proposed a new economic stabilization program that for the first time emphasized private-sector initiatives. The program, drawn up in consultation with a consortium of international banks, was approved by parliament, and Turgut Özal, an economist, was placed in charge of implementing it. Some progress was recorded, but the government's attention was diverted by intensified political violence, which by mid-1980 was claiming twenty or more lives a day.

Challenges to Public Order

Turkey faced recurrent political violence throughout the 1970s. Political parties, particularly those of the extreme right, organized strong-arm auxiliaries for street fighting. Kurdish nationalism and sectarian divisions were also factors. From time to time, specifically from 1971 to 1973 and again in December 1978, the frequency of such violence and the involvement of increasing numbers of persons led to the imposition of martial law in parts of the country.

Most of the violence-prone groups of the right were apparently attached, directly or indirectly, to Türkes and the MHP. The best organized of these, the Gray Wolves, were armed and regularly resorted to terrorist tactics. Other groups--particularly those on the left--used violence in the hope that the reaction of the state would lead to revolution. Their members assaulted politicians and public officials, the police, journalists, and members of rival groups. United States military personnel stationed in Turkey were also targets of attack. Some groups involved in the violence were identified with the Kurdish nationalist movement.

The Ecevit government initially tried to play down the significance of Kurdish separatism and to avoid actions that might alienate the many Kurds who supported the CHP and lead them to join extremist groups that they might otherwise ignore. Opposition members in the Grand National Assembly, who tended to identify any sign of restiveness in the Kurdish regions with Kurdish separatism, insisted on stronger measures from the government. In April 1979, the martial law that had been proclaimed in some parts of the country the previous December was extended to provinces with Kurdish-speaking majorities.

Estimates vary, but some sources claim that as many as 2,000 persons died in political violence in the two-year period 1978-79. The single most serious incident erupted in the town of Kahramanmaras in December 1978, when more than 100 persons were killed in sectarian conflict between Sunni and Alevi (see Glossary) Muslims. The incident led to the imposition of martial law in the Kahramanmaras Province that same month.

The military became increasingly uneasy over continued criticism of the armed forces in the Grand National Assembly. The apparent inability of successive governments to deal with problems of the economy and public order led many in the military to conclude that the 1961 constitution was defective. Their frustration with the political process was confirmed in September 1980, when the assembly was unable to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to elect a new president.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress