Political Developments since the 1980 Coup

Turkey Table of Contents

Immediately following the September 1980 coup, the military government arrested Turkey's leading politicians, dissolved the bicameral Grand National Assembly, declared martial law, and banned all political activity (see Military Interlude, ch. 1). In October 1981, all political parties then in existence were disbanded and their property and financial assets confiscated by the state. In April 1983, the NSC issued regulations for the formation of new political parties--which could have no ties to the disbanded parties--in anticipation of elections for a new single-chamber National Assembly to be held later that year. Subsequently, the ban on political activity was lifted, except for 723 politicians active before the coup who were forbidden to participate in politics. About 500--former deputies and senators of the dissolved Grand National Assembly--were barred until 1986. The remaining group of more than 200 was not allowed to be involved in politics until 1991. In addition to these restrictions, each party had to submit its list of candidates for NSC approval in order to compete in the assembly elections. Although fifteen parties were established by August 1983, the NSC disqualified all but three of them on the grounds that they had ties to banned political leaders such as Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit. For a variety of other political reasons, the NSC also vetoed several proposed candidates on the lists presented by the three approved parties.

The parties allowed to participate in the November 1983 National Assembly elections were the Nationalist Democracy Party (Milliyetçi Demokrasi Partisi--MDP), headed by retired general Turgut Sunalp, an ally of NSC chair and president Kenan Evren; the Motherland Party, led by Turgut Özal, a civilian who had served in the military government from 1980 to 1982 as deputy prime minister for economic affairs; and the Populist Party (Halkçi Partisi--HP), led by Necdet Calp. The military publicly supported Sunalp's party and expected it to win a majority of seats in the new assembly. However, the elections proved to be a stunning repudiation of the military government: the Nationalist Democracy Party won only 23.3 percent of the total votes cast and obtained only seventy-one of the assembly's 400 seats. Özal's Motherland Party won an absolute majority of seats (211 total); subsequently, Evren asked Özal to form a new government, which took office in December 1983.

The restoration of civilian government did not mean an immediate restoration of civilian rule. Although the NSC had dissolved itself, Evren, as president of the republic, was in a position to veto any policies that might displease the military. In addition, most of Turkey remained under martial law, which meant that military officers retained ultimate decision-making authority at the local level. Although Özal proceeded cautiously to reassert civilian authority, he recognized that easing various military-imposed restrictions was essential to improve Turkey's international image, especially in Western Europe.

Following the 1980 coup, the members of the European Community, which Turkey aspired to join, had frozen relations with Ankara. The pan-European parliament, the Council of Europe, had cited the military regime's record of human rights violations as justification for banning Turkish participation in 1982 (see Foreign Relations, this ch.). To demonstrate his commitment to democracy, Özal allowed three political parties whose participation in the 1983 general elections had been vetoed by the military to contest the municipal elections his government had scheduled for March 1984. All three parties seemed to be obvious continuations of dissolved precoup parties, and they did not try very hard to disguise their ties to banned politicians. For example, the True Path Party had been formed by former members of the Justice Party, and its de facto leader was widely acknowledged to be Süleyman Demirel. Supporters of the old Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi--CHP) had formed the Social Democratic Party (Sosyal Demokrat Parti--Sodep) under the leadership of Erdal Inönü, the son of Ismet Inönü, a former president and close political ally of Atatürk. The Welfare Party (Refah Partisi--RP) was headed by Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamic activist whose political views had been irksome to the military since the early 1970s.

The local elections held on March 25, 1984, constituted a further repudiation of the military, with Sunalp's Nationalist Democracy Party obtaining less than 10 percent of the vote. At the level of local politics, Sodep and the True Path Party emerged as the second and third strongest parties behind Özal's Motherland Party, which won 40 percent of the vote. The Populist Party, which had the second largest contingent in the National Assembly, did poorly in the municipal elections, probably because most of its potential support went to Sodep, a party with which it shared ideological affinities, as well as common origins in the old Republican People's Party. Subsequently, in November 1985 a majority of Populist Party deputies voted to dissolve their party and merge with Sodep to form a single party, the Social Democratic Populist Party (Sosyal Demokrat Halkçi Parti--SHP). The local elections and the lifting of martial law in several Turkish provinces had a positive effect on some European governments, and in May 1984, the Council of Europe voted to readmit Turkey as an associate member of the European Community.

Following the 1984 municipal elections, former political leaders challenged restrictions on their activities by appearing at political meetings and making public speeches. Demirel and Ecevit were the most prominent of the leaders who openly defied the bans on political activities. The Özal government was under pressure from the military to enforce the bans but under equal pressure from both domestic public opinion and international human rights organizations to relax the restrictions on the country's former leaders. The government responded with alternating tolerance and legal harassment. Inconsistency also characterized the government's treatment of other democratization issues. For example, by the end of 1987 martial law had been lifted in most of Turkey's provinces, but the number of civilians being tried in military courts actually had increased. In addition, the government was embarrassed by reports published by Amnesty International and similar organizations charging the continuation of systematic torture in Turkish prisons, press censorship, and the denial of civil rights for the Kurdish minority. Although the Özal government dismissed these reports, they tended to complicate already delicate relations with members of the European Community.

In 1986 the expiration of the law banning political activity by some 500 minor politicians of the precoup era served to highlight the anomalous situation of a self-proclaimed democracy that continued to deny the right of political participation to more than 200 major political figures, including former prime ministers and cabinet members. Özal persuaded President Evren and the other senior military officers who supported the ban that the issue should be put to a referendum. The vote took place in September 1987, with a large majority of voters approving repeal. Demirel and Ecevit almost immediately assumed leadership of the parties they had controlled from behind the scenes, respectively the True Path Party and the Democratic Left Party (Demokratik Sol Partisi--DSP), and began campaigning for the National Assembly elections scheduled for November.

The 1987 National Assembly elections were held under the most democratic conditions since the 1980 coup. In contrast to its actions during the 1983 election, the government proscribed no political parties or individual candidates on party lists. From the perspective of the individual parties, the only drawback was the requirement that each must win at least 10 percent of the national vote in order to obtain a seat in the assembly. Parties competing in the elections included the Democratic Left Party, the Motherland Party, the Nationalist Labor Party (Milliyetçi Çalisma Partisi--MÇP), the SHP, the True Path Party, and the Welfare Party (see Political Parties, this ch.). However, only three parties exceeded the 10 percent threshold to qualify for assembly seats. Özal's Motherland Party upheld its dominance in parliament by winning 36 percent of the national vote--slightly less than the 40 percent it had won in 1983--and more than 60 percent of the assembly seats--292 out of a total of 450. Inönü's SHP, a 1985 merger of Sodep and the Populist Party (the latter had won the second highest number of seats in 1983), ranked second with ninety-nine seats. Demirel's True Path Party, which had not been allowed to participate in the 1983 elections, ranked third with fifty-nine seats.

The four years following the 1987 elections witnessed the political comeback of Demirel, who had been prime minister at the time of the 1980 military coup. Following the takeover by the armed forces, he and other members of his government had been arrested. His Justice Party and all other parties subsequently were forcibly dissolved. During Demirel's eleven-year exclusion from politics, his former protégé, Özal, emerged as the country's most prominent civilian politician. Because Özal had been a rising star in the Justice Party prior to the coup and had been chosen to take charge of the government's economic reform program, Demirel resented Özal's initial cooperation with the military and his later establishment of the Motherland Party, which competed directly with the True Path Party for the allegiance of former Justice Party supporters. Consequently, once the ban on his political activities was lifted, Demirel campaigned tirelessly against Özal and the Motherland Party. Demirel's persistent criticism of Özal's policies probably was an important factor in the major electoral setback suffered by the Motherland Party in the March 1989 municipal council elections. The Motherland Party's share of the popular vote fell to 22 percent--compared with 26 percent for Demirel's True Path Party--and it lost control of several municipal councils, including those in the country's three largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Whatever satisfaction Demirel may have derived from his party's electoral edge over the Motherland Party, the True Path Party nevertheless did not receive the largest plurality of ballots. That distinction went to the SHP, which obtained 28 percent of the total vote (see fig. 13).

Encouraged by the results of the municipal council elections, Demirel devoted the next two-and-one-half years to building up his party for the National Assembly elections. His goal was for the True Path Party to win a majority of seats, a victory that would enable him to reclaim the post of prime minister from which he had been ousted so unceremoniously in 1980. Özal may have provided unintentional support for Demirel's efforts when he decided at the end of 1989 to be a candidate for president to replace General Evren, whose seven-year term was expiring. Because Özal's Motherland Party still controlled a majority of seats in the assembly, his nomination was approved, albeit on the third ballot. However, in accordance with the constitution, Özal had to sever his political ties to the Motherland Party upon becoming president. Because he had been so closely identified with the party and because none of its other leaders, including Yildirim Akbulut, who succeeded Özal as prime minister in November 1989, had achieved national prominence, Özal's departure tended to weaken the Motherland Party politically.

The decline--at least temporarily--of the Motherland Party was demonstrated in the October 1991 National Assembly elections. The party received only 24 percent of the total vote and won only 115 seats. In comparison to four years earlier, these results represented a severe defeat. However, the Motherland Party remained a serious competitor in the political arena, falling only from first to second place in terms of overall parliamentary representation. Whereas the True Path Party emerged from the elections with the largest number of votes and the greatest number of assembly seats, its overall performance--27 percent of the total vote and 178 assembly seats--was less impressive than Demirel had hoped and insufficient to give the party the 226 seats needed for parliamentary control. For Demirel to become prime minister, it would be necessary for the True Path Party to form a coalition with the Motherland Party--a very unrealistic prospect--or at least one of the three other parties that had obtained 10 percent or more of the total vote and thus qualified for representation in the assembly. The three parties were the SHP, eighty-eight seats; the Welfare Party, sixty-two seats; and the Democratic Left Party, seven seats. In November 1991, Demirel announced a DYP-SHP coalition government, with himself as prime minister and SHP leader Inönü as deputy prime minister. Thus, eleven years after being overthrown by the military, Demirel returned as head of government. More significantly, in May 1993 the National Assembly elected Demirel president of the republic following the unexpected death of Özal.

The Welfare Party and other parties also perceived the Motherland Party's weakness and shared Demirel's hope of benefiting from it. The Welfare Party built steady support in middle- and lower-class urban neighborhoods by focusing on widespread dissatisfaction with government policies and attributing official abuses of authority to the failure of leaders to adhere to traditional religious values. It had received 10 percent of the total vote in the 1989 municipal council elections and won control of several small town councils. In the October 1991 National Assembly elections, the party obtained 16.9 percent of the total vote and won sixty-two seats. Its base in the assembly provided the Welfare Party with a strong platform from which to criticize the DYP-SHP coalition government, which Welfare Party leaders accused of being as insensitive on issues of social injustice and civil rights abuses as its Motherland predecessor. In the March 1994 municipal elections, the Welfare Party demonstrated its ability to draw some of the support base of the DYP, whose share of the total vote fell to 22 percent. In contrast, the Welfare Party won 19 percent of the total vote--placing it a very close third after the DYP and the Motherland Party. Its mayoralty candidates won in both Ankara and Istanbul, the country's two most secular cities, as well as in scores of other cities and towns.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress