Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 10 Table of Contents
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October 2001 

Generals, Politicians and Constitutional Reform in Turkey
by Thomas Patrick Carroll

Thomas Patrick Carroll is a freelance writer and former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency. His areas of specialization are Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean affairs.

On September 17, the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) began debating a set of 37 constitutional amendments. The constitution in question - Turkey's third since its founding - was written in the early 1980s during a period of military rule, and has often been criticized as authoritarian and restrictive. The 37 amendments were intended to liberalize the constitution markedly, bringing Turkey's civil and political life more in line with contemporary Western norms.

Just over two weeks later, on October 3, the TGNA passed 34 of the 37 proposed amendments, and did so by a 474 to 16 landslide. Of course, the amendments are not magic, and nobody believes Turkey will be transformed overnight. Hurdles remain, and there will be plenty of opportunity for backsliding. But make no mistake about it, the amendments are significant.

For instance, before the October 3 vote, the preamble of the constitution declared that "no protection shall be afforded to thoughts or opinions contrary to Turkish national interests." The amended version reads "actions" rather than "thoughts or opinions," thus radically expanding the circle of protected speech.

Another example is Article 26, which also pertains to freedom of speech. Article 26 previously stated, in part, that "no language prohibited by law shall be used in the expression and dissemination of thought. Any written or printed documents, phonograph records, magnetic or video tapes, and other means of expression used in contravention of this provision shall be seized." This clause allowed officials to ban the public use of the Kurdish language. In the new amended version, it is expunged.

While there were plenty in the country who were eager to see liberalization for its own sake, Turkey's application for membership in the European Union (EU) added urgency to the debate. Sometime in the next few weeks, the EU will issue a report on the headway Turkey is making in its political, social, and economic reforms. If the TGNA had proven unable to pass (at least most of) the amendment package without watering it down to meaninglessness, the report would undoubtedly have been harsh. Turkey's drive toward EU membership would have slowed, and momentum for important national reform might have slackened. Although we will have to wait and see what the EU report actually says, chances are it will be upbeat, thanks in no small part to the passage of those 34 constitutional amendments.

However, while the future looks promising, nagging doubts linger. After all, the stern, authoritarian 1982 constitution was not created ex nihilo. There were reasons it came into being - destructive political and social forces that made it almost inevitable. As Turkey liberalizes the constitution, Turks are betting that those dangerous forces, while by no means gone, will no longer be decisive.

Turkey's 1982 Constitution

The Turkish Republic's original constitution was promulgated in 1924 and lasted until the country's first military coup, which toppled the government of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes on May 27, 1960. The next constitution took effect in 1961 and lasted nineteen years, coming to an end on September 12, 1980 with Turkey's second military coup.1

The years leading up to the September 12 coup - the latter half of the 1970s, roughly - saw Turkey teetering on the brink of anarchy. The proximate cause of the military intervention was a mass rally held on September 6, 1980 in the town of Konya. The rally was the work of the Islamist National Salvation Party (NSP), during which party officials called for the reintroduction of Islamic law. But the NSP was just one of many radical organizations on the scene in those years, and any of them - on the left or the right - could have provided the spark that set off the coup. When the military did finally intervene, the vast majority of Turks welcomed it.

The leader of the September 12 coup was General Kenan Evren, Chief of the Turkish General Staff. Soon after restoring order, Evren and his ruling junta commissioned a new constitution. On November 7, 1982, the freshly minted document was put to a national referendum and received approval from 91.4% of the Turkish voters. Military rule continued until November 1983, when the generals voluntarily handed the reins of power back to the civilians.

The Politicians vs The Generals

What led to the enormous breakdown in civil society during the late 1970s, a breakdown so appalling that the imposition of military rule was celebrated by almost everyone?

The contributors were many. Some were common throughout the developing world, others were unique to Turkey. The rapid urbanization of an overwhelmingly agrarian population was one factor. Another was the offering by charismatic leaders of seductive but deadly ideologies like Marxism and fascism, with their simple, violent solutions to complex and subtle problems. There were historical tensions and grievances among the population (e.g., from the Kurds and Islamists). There were young men living in cities with no jobs and few prospects. There was poverty. There was envy.

But worst of all, Turkey was saddled with an abysmal political class. The national politicians - theoretically one of the prime sources for the ideas, programs, and leadership the nation needed to combat its myriad problems - were selfish, jealous, petty, and corrupt. And that was on their good days.

Turkey's political parties were more like fan clubs or personality cults than vehicles for serious political action. Each of Turkey's major politicians had his own party, which he, and he alone, dominated. Suleyman Demirel had the Justice Party, Bulent Ecevit dominated the Republican People's Party, Necmettin Erbakan ran the National Salvation Party, and so on. After these parties were disbanded in the wake of September 12, 1980, each was reincarnated under a new name, but with the same man at the helm - Demirel with the True Path Party, for example.

The leader of each party usually surrounded himself with sycophants and weaklings, people who would not challenge the leader's authority or threaten his position. The party was used to dole out jobs to the leader's supporters, and to amass fortunes for the leader and his friends.2

Throughout the 1970s, while the nation sank deeper and deeper into chaos, the politicians squabbled. Instead of putting honest, talented people into positions of authority in the civil service, they packed the state bureaucracy with their incompetent friends and loyal cronies. Responsible civilian leadership was almost wholly absent from the national scene. Coalitions in the TGNA formed and shifted and fell and formed again. It was a mess.

The contrast with the military could not have been more stark.

Unlike the political class, the Turkish military was imbued with an ethic of national service and personal sacrifice. Discipline was strict and luxury shunned. Corruption was not unknown, of course - it never is - but it was rare. Professionalism was the rule throughout the officer corps. And just as politicians were disdained by most Turks, the military was widely trusted and admired.

Along with this trust came a special set of duties, enshrined both in law and tradition. The Turkish military, like that of any country, was charged with protecting the nation from foreign threats. But in Turkey, the military's national security duty went beyond simply defending the boarders and projecting force. It also included guarding the nation's secular, Western-oriented form of government from domestic threat and internal subversion.

The military's role as guardian of the secular Republic had been taken for granted since the time of Atatürk, not only by the military itself, but also by most civilians. Military intervention in Turkey has never been along the Latin American model, where the senior officers periodically grab power for reasons of greed or personal aggrandizement. When the Turkish armed forces have taken the reins of government, they have done so reluctantly, as a final resort when the civilian leadership bungled national policy to the point that the generals believed the viability of Turkey as a modern, secular republic was in jeopardy.

It was a threat of this magnitude that General Evren believed the nation faced back in 1980, when he launched the September 12 coup. And Evren was probably right.

What is different today?

The constitution of 1982 flowed from the coup of 1980, which in turn was produced by the failure of Turkey's political leadership to deal adequately with the grave social problems the country faced in the latter half of the 1970s. If one believes the time has come for the 1982 constitution to be substantially liberalized - and there is general, though by no means unanimous, agreement within Turkey that it is indeed time - then one must also believe that circumstances have improved enough over the last twenty-some years to obviate the need for the constitution's more authoritarian passages.

But have circumstances improved? And if so, have they improved enough? Recall that (broadly speaking) the problems leading up to the September 12 coup were 1) a breakdown in civil society, exacerbated by 2) an incompetent civilian political establishment. How does Turkey stand today on these two fronts?

Turkish civil society is clearly more stable and peaceful than it was back in the 1970s. A small part of this may be due to the continuing strictness of the 1982 constitution and the laws it supports, but most appears to reflect genuine structural change. Turkey is much more prosperous today, with a relatively diverse economy (though still too many state-owned enterprises) and a growing middle class. The economic slump Turkey is currently in, though serious, will not last forever.3 The Kurdish insurgency is dormant, if not dead, and violent radicalism of all stripes seems safely at bay. There are encouraging signs that hard-line Islamist politics have been supplanted by a moderate social conservatism - the new Justice and Development Party is an example.

When we shift our attention to the politicians, however, the situation is not as encouraging. Strong central personalities still play a prominent role in party life, although not as much as they once did. And it is still common for politicians to discard their "principles" when no longer politically expedient. For instance, several months ago Recai Kutan was all in favor of amending the constitution to make the banning of political parties more difficult. But, of course, that was when his own Virtue Party was facing annihilation by the Constitutional Court. Today the Virtue Party is gone (banned by the Court on June 22) and Kutan's new vehicle, the Contentment Party, is under no such threats. Suddenly, Kutan no longer believes the nation should be in any hurry to amend the constitution.

Another serious problem is the sad condition of the (non-military) state bureaucracy. After decades of being used by the politicians as an easy way of rewarding supporters with cushy jobs, it is today a sea of incompetence and corruption.4 There are excellent people in the civilian bureaucracy, to be sure, but they are far outnumbered by the bad. Since politicians must rely on the bureaucracy for both ideas and execution, cleaning it up needs to be a top priority. But reforms are being made, and the signs are positive. Just this month, the World Bank sponsored an anti-corruption conference in Ankara, and the Turkish government continues to make headlines with its sting operations against corrupt government officials.


While Turkish civil society is ready for a more democratic constitution, many politicians still lack the maturity and sense of responsibility needed from the leadership of a liberal polity. On the other hand, today's politicians are certainly no worse than they used to be, and may on the whole be somewhat better.

Another encouraging sign is that Turkey's generals, speaking through the National Security Council (NSC), which they dominate, evidently agree that the nation is ready for greater personal and political freedoms. While voicing mild reservations about the haste with which the amendment package was considered, the NSC has made it clear that it backs the reforms in principle, and that it will do nothing to frustrate their implementation. It would be a mistake to underestimate this vote of confidence from the generals.

Nothing this side of the eschaton is guaranteed, and certainly nothing in Turkish politics. But the signs are hopeful. Turkey's citizens at home, and her friends abroad, can look forward with cautious optimism to the new era these amendments herald.


  1 Some argue that September 12, 1980 was Turkey's third coup, not its second. The second coup, they say, occurred on March 12, 1971, when the generals sent an official note to Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel telling him to resign and end his chaotic government - the remarkable "coup by memorandum." The generals told Demirel that if he refused, they would remove him. Demirel's resignation followed immediately. Since there were no tanks in the street or any other overt displays of military force, I do not count the events of March 12 as a true military coup.
  2 A notable exception is Bulent Ecevit, a prominent leader on the left since the 1960s and Turkey's Prime Minister today. From everything one can tell, Ecevit has never been corrupted by money or power. He can be just as petty and self-centered as the rest of them, but he does appear to be honest.
  3 It is estimated that the Turkish economy will have shrunk by about 10% this past year. Many banks shut down because of privatization and structural reforms, and the decision to let the Turkish Lira float against the dollar has put many companies out of business.
  4 For a good discussion of the problem, see Mehmet Ali Briand, "Difference between civilian and military bureaucracy increasing," Turkish Daily News, 29-30 August 2001.

2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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