Kenan Evren, the former Turkish president now facing charges in an Ankara court, is only the most recent in a long line of military officers to seize power in a coup.
The military has long seen itself as the “guardian of Turkish democracy”, which it defines as the staunchly secular state created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic. It has directly intervened three times in Turkish politics, and in 1997 it carried out what some scholars describe as a “postmodern coup”.
The first coup in the Turkish republic took place in 1960, during a time of heightened tensions between the Turkish government and the opposition.
The ruling Democratic Party, headed by prime minister Adnan Menderes and president Celal Bayar, began to loosen some of the toughest Ataturk-era rules dealing with religion: it allowed thousands of mosques to reopen, legalised the call to prayer in Arabic instead of Turkish, and opened new schools for religious personnel, among others. It also shortened the period of mandatory military service.
At the same time, it further alienated the opposition by imposing restrictive new press laws and occasionally barring critical newspapers from publishing.
Growing tensions caused the Menderes government to impose martial law in early 1960. The army stepped in and toppled the government on May 27; the president, prime minister and several cabinet members were arrested and quickly tried for treason and other offences. Menderes was executed.
General Cemal Gursel assumed power – as both president and prime minister – beginning a period of military-dominated politics that would last until 1965.
The Turkish economy stagnated in the late 1960s, and the recession caused widespread unrest: workers’ groups staged demonstrations, sometimes violent, and right-wing groups carried out attacks of their own. The currency was devalued in 1960; annual inflation reached nearly 80 percent.
So in March the military intervened once again, an effort to “restore order”, it said. Memduh Tagmac, the chief of the general staff, gave a memorandum to the prime minister, Suleyman Demirel. It accused his government of driving the country into anarchy, and demanded the formation of a “strong and credible government … inspired by Ataturk’s views.”
Demirel resigned hours later, after meeting with his cabinet.
The military did not rule directly during this period. It first asked Nihat Erim, a member of the right-wing Republican People’s Party, to form a caretaker government; it was the first of several which governed Turkey until 1973, when Fahri Koruturk, a retired naval officer, was installed as president by the parliament.
Instability continued even after the 1971 coup: Turkey changed prime ministers 11 times in the 1970s, the economy continued to stagnate, and left and right-wing groups continued their violent clashes in the streets. Thousands of people were assassinated.
The military began discussing a possible coup in late 1979, and in March 1980 a group of generals recommended that they move forward. It was delayed several times, and finally launched in September, when officers announced on state television that they were imposing martial law and dissolving the government.
Evren became president, and a naval officer, Bulent Ulusu, assumed the post of prime minister.
These years of military rule did bring some stability to Turkey. Ulusu was succeeded in 1983 by Turgut Ozal, who is now widely credited with stabilising the Turkish economy by privatising many state-owned industries. Inflation dropped and employment grew.
The military also arrested hundreds of thousands of people; dozens were executed, while many others were tortured or simply disappeared.
A new constitution was drafted and put before a public referendum in 1982; it was overwhelmingly approved.
The 1995 election led to overwhelming gains for the Islamist Welfare party, which took power the following year as the head of a coalition government.
In 1997 the military issued a series of “recommendations”, which the government had no choice but to accept. The prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, agreed to a compulsory eight-year education programme (to prevent pupis from enrolling in religious schools), a headscarf ban at universities, and other measures. Erbakan was then forced to resign.
The Welfare party was shut down in 1998, and Erbakan was banned from politics for five years.
Some former members of the party, including current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would eventually go on to found the Justice and Development Party.