Contextualising the Turkish coup attempt

The Turkish republic has always had an interesting relationship with democracy. We take a look at the four previous military coups in Turkey in an attempt to understand events last night.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A police armoured vehicle uses a water cannon to disperse anti-government forces on Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, July 16, 2016.

Updated Jul 18, 2016

Late Friday evening, a group referring to themselves as a "peace council," claimed to have taken control of the Turkish state and quickly announced the instatement of a curfew and martial law.

By early Saturday morning, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a crowd of hundreds of supporters at Istanbul Ataturk International Airport that he was in full control of the nation and the rogue faction of the army had been successfully repelled.

Friday's attempt marks the fifth time a legitimate Turkish government has faced an open challenge by a military group since 1960.

As in this weekend's case, each prior coup was led by the military, which claimed to be protecting democracy in the nation. Previous coups were also largely seen as a reaction to a perceived affront to the secular ideas of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

In a statement read on the state broadcaster, the group claimed they were acting in the interest of rule of law and democracy in Turkey and would draft a new constitution.

Previous Coups


That year, the government first began to re-embrace certain religious establishments and traditions which Ataturk had worked to disempower. In May of 1960, a faction of 38 members of the military angered by the reopening thousands of mosques, re-legalisation of the call to prayer in Arabic and the establishment of new madrasas for military personnel, arrested the president, prime minister, and other members of the cabinet.

They were accused of treason.

By 1961, then Prime Minister Cemal Gursel had been executed after military officials accused him of acting in violation of the constitution. Military rule over the country would last until 1965, when Suat Hayri Urguplu was elected the new prime minister


By 1971, then Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, had been in power for roughly four years, but a recession and growing civil unrest -- street demonstrations, labour strikes and political assassinations -- had already began to foment opposition to his rule.

Accusing Demirel of driving the nation into anarchy, the military presented him with an ultimatum on March 12 of that year.

The memorandum, presented to Demirel by Chief of the General Staff, Memduh Tagmac, called for: "The formation, within the context of democratic principles, of a strong and credible government, which will neutralise the current anarchical situation and which, inspired by Atatürk's views, will implement the reformist laws envisaged by the constitution."

After a three-hour meeting with his cabinet, Demirel handed in his resignation. Owing to the lack of military hardware and use of force, the 1971 coup was dubbed Turkey's "coup by memorandum."

In 1974, military rule once again came to an end as the parliament elected Mustafa Bulent Ecevit the new prime minister.


In this October 29, 1980 file photo, leaders of September 12 military coup stand during a ceremony at the mausoleum of the founder Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara.

Even with the return to civilian rule in 1974, the 1970s remained a tumultuous decade for politics in Turkey. In 10 years, 11 different prime ministers led the nation.

In September of 1980, the military once again announced a takeover of the government and the re-establishment of martial law. According to an Amnesty International report published in 1988, the army’s three-year rule during the 1980s was known for reports of the executions, detentions, torture and disappearance of political opponents.


Turkey's late former prime minister Necmettin Erbakan, who was forced to resign after the last coup in 1997, gestures, during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, April 10, 2009. 

In 1996, Necmettin Erbakan, who believed in the strengthening of Islamic values in the nation, became prime minister.

Only a year into his rule, the military once again staged a so-called "coup by memorandum" to force the ruling party at the time to enact anti-religious measures, most notably, a ban on women wearing headscarves at public universities.

Erbakan was forced to resign soon after and was eventually banned from politics after the Constitutional Court found him guilty of violating the separation of religion and state. The European Court on Human Rights would later uphold the ban.


So far, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have withstood what they called an attempt at another military coup, except this time, those who opposed the government seemed to lack full support within the military.

After nearly six hours of uncertainty, Erdogan's government began to crack down on anyone perceived to have instigated the coup and claimed to have arrested more hundreds of people whom they suspected of being instrumental in orchestrating the coup attempt.

The government was quick to blame forces loyal to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former associate of Erdogan's. However, groups close to Gulen call the government's accusation "highly irresponsible" and condemn military intervention in the nation's politics.

This means that unlike previous coups, no specific group has yet to claim responsibility for the attempt to bring down Erdogan's government.

TRTWorld and agencies