On This Day in 1960, the Turkish President, Celâl Bayar, was removed from office by a military coup. He was the first Turkish leader to be removed from office, but would be far from the country’s last.
Turkey has witnessed numerous attempted and successful military coups since the country’s 1923 inception following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This is because of the role of the country’s founding figure, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Atatürk attempted to move Turkey away from its traditional islamic roots and entrenched in the constitution the concept of religious secularism. Kemal himself enjoyed dictatorial powers but attempted to use them in such a manner to modernise and Westernise Turkey, raising literacy rates and industrialising the nation as well as ensuring women’s rights.
With these principles, the ideology of Kemalism was born. Atatürk gave the power to defend this ideology to the military, believing that, for the Republic to flourish, his principles must be retained. However, following his 1938 death, the nation fell into decades of upheaval, with the 1960 coup and removal of power of Celâl Bayar when he was deemed to be undermining Turkish democracy, creating instability and weak governance that would lead to more coups and more instability.
Bayar had been Prime Minister under Atatürk’s reign, but one of the 16 Turkish officers trained by the US to form an anti-communist, guerilla-style paramilitary unit deemed Bayar’s increasingly authoritarian rule to be a threat to the Turkish Republic and the principles of Kemalism and launched a coup on May 27th.
Many other military figures joined the coup and the government was forced out of office and placed on trial in a kangaroo court. Bayar was found guilty of violating the Constitution and was sentenced to death, though this was lessened to life imprisonment. He would later be released on health grounds in 1964 and die in 1983.
The coup created much instability but many felt that it was justified to protect the state that Atatürk had envisioned. However, in 1971 another coup was held. And in 1980 a third. And in 1997 a fourth coup inside 75 years was initiated to remove the government from power.
This led to Turkey having an incredibly stagnant economy with limited foreign investment and trade and weak, uncharismatic political leadership. That was until Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Prime Minister in 2003. Erdoğan appealed to the vast majority of Turks, over 96%, who were Muslim and felt that they had been oppressed by the state’s secular nature and saw the political and economic choas and corruption as a sign of failure of Kemalism. Erdoğan’s policies saw GDP rise dramatically and inflation drop significantly too. This gave him a cult of personality, making his position virtually unassailable due to his extreme popularity, with his Justice and Development Party (AK Partei) not losing a single election since it’s founding in 2001.
As his power grew, Erdoğan began initiating more Islamist, anti-Kemalist policies, and the military once again began plotting to protect Atatürk’s legacy. On the night of July 15th, a coup was launched with senior military figures being taken hostage by pro-coup subordinates. Erdoğan was not in the country at the time, but contact the media using FaceTime and encouraged his supporters to the streets and declared a 3 month state of emergency.
His supporters overran the army and the coup failed, the military was purged but the state of emergency remains in place. Erdoğan continues to consolidate power, initiating a referendum in 2017 allowing him to turn the office of President, a relatively ceremonial role, into a powerful one with a long tenue – he could serve until 2029.
It seems unclear whether another military coup will be initiated to topple Erdoğan’s government and return Turkey to the Westernised, Kemalist principles that were envisaged for the nation in 1923. The continued consolidation of power by the popular Presidential figure and purging of threats from the military as well as press censorship have allowed Erdoğan to make his position very secure and the failure of the 2016 coup only served to show how dedicated his loyalists were and how far Turkey has come since the 1960 coup.