22 Years On: Turkey's Post-Modern Coup

On the 22nd anniversary of the February 28 coup, Turkey is at an important stage on the road of democratization. The most important thing that must be done following this stage is the creation of an atmosphere that will institutionalize these achievements.

22 Years On Turkey's Post-Modern Coup
Remembering the victims of the 28 February, 1997, coup in Turkey. Anadolu Agency

Since Turkey’s transition to a multi-party political system as from the election held on 14 May, 1950, the country had to experience numerous interregnum periods mainly due to military coups. One of these military coups was the February 28 coup in 1997. Although 22 years has passed, the societal problems and traumas caused by the coup have not be fully recovered yet. On the other hand, the regulations marked by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan abolished the oppressive and prohibitive practices remaining from February 28.

The memories of the latest military coup attempt Turkey experienced are still fresh in the country’s collective memory while its traces are still visible in bureaucracy and society. During the atrocious coup attempt organized by a group of Gulenist Terror Group (FETO) operatives who infiltrated the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), 251 citizens were killed and 2194 were injured. The atrocity was answered by an unprecedented resistance that marked its name in Turkey’s political history. Political will and society united and repelled the coup attempters. The nation defended the political will in the streets and paid heavy prices to protect democracy, which has been a turning point in Turkey’s democracy. Upon President Erdogan’s call, people took to the streets and reclaimed the public offices and media organizations occupied by the pro-coup forces, which was a first in the country’s history of coups that goes back to 26 May, 1960. The awareness spurred and shaped by this demeanor will certainly play a crucial role in building Turkey’s future.

Turkey and military coups

As of the election on 14 May, 1950, that marked Turkey’s transition to democracy, the country has experienced a slew of overt or covert military coups. The military coup staged on 27 May, 1960, was the first one and resulted in the capital punishment of then Prime Minister and Democrat Party leader Adnan Menderes and two ministers. A junta of military officers ended the 10-year ruling power of the Democrat Party, which came to power in every election by enjoying popular support. Only 11 years later, on 12 March, 1971, the military gave a memorandum to civilian politics and forced the government, ruled by the Justice Party leader and then Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel, to resign. So, between the years 1970 and 1980, Turkey suffered a long-standing conflict between the right-wing and left-wing and had to deal with unstable coalition governments, which ended with another coup attempt staged on 12 September, 1980.

Following the 1980 coup staged under the tutelage of then Chief of General Staff Kenan Evren, Turkey confronted a long period of oppression marked by arrests, tortures, and prohibitions. The volatile democratic climate, which was established perfunctorily after the period when the military controlled political life, started to decompose again with the election victory of politicians who were not considered acceptable by the system.

The military oppression period that started in the early 1990s culminated in yet another military coup staged on 28 February, 1997. The February 28 coup is one of the most far-reaching coups in Turkey’s history since the military officers that organized the coup and their co-conspirators in bureaucracy did not only aim their political opponents but also plotted an extensive intervention that affected all segments of society. The scope of the prohibitions that were put into practice after the February 28 manifests this intent.

The February 28 coup is one of the most far-reaching coups in Turkey’s history since the military officers that organized the coup and their co-conspirators in bureaucracy did not only aim their political opponents but also plotted an extensive intervention that affected all segments of society.

The climate of February 28

Some contextualization on the process leading up to the coup is required to comprehend the political and social background of the February 28 coup. During the 1990s, Turkey could not achieve political or economic stability since it was ruled by coalition governments throughout these years. In an atmosphere where political power was in decline, other power mechanisms such as military, media, capital, bureaucracy and global forces enjoyed increasing influence on the country.

In the local election held in 1994 amid all these, the Welfare Party chaired by Prof. Necmettin Erbakan had a victory since the local candidates of the party won both in Istanbul and Ankara, the two most populous provinces of Turkey. Becoming the Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor after the election, Erdogan practiced “project municipalism,” “administration skills” and “face-to-face communication policy,” all of which added up to the formation of a role model and spread to the rest of the country.

The first reflection of the Welfare Party’s success in municipalities was seen in the 1995 general election, in which the party had a notable success by receiving 22 percent of the vote share and becoming the first party. Of course, it was hard for political engineers to accept this success. As a result, the power to form the government was not granted to the first party but to the second and third parties, namely the Homeland Party (ANAP) chaired by Mesut Yılmaz and the True Path Party (DYP) led by Tansu Ciller. However, since the ANAYOL coalition government formed by these two parties had a short lifespan, then President Suleyman Demirel assigned Erbakan to form a government, after which Erbakan and DYP formed the REFAHYOL coalition government on 28 June, 1996.

Some groups within the army and Jacobin Kemalists in the bureaucracy were disturbed in the face of this development, and their discomfort started to reflect in the media from the very beginning of the coalition. In fact, the military never wanted to recognize Erbakan as Prime Minister despite the sensitive and soothing remarks of Erbakan as well as a large part of the media outlets who defined themselves as secular, universities, judiciary, and large organizations of business world. Eventually, a series of operations to shape opinions and open intervention attempts were ignited to undermine the 54th government led by Erbakan.  

Tanks of February 28

The process that has gone down in history as the "post-modern coup of February 28" was led by a certain group of military personnel within the TSK and conducted against the civilian government of the period. While this process is referred to as such due to the 9 hour long meeting of the National Security Council held on February 28, 1997, where anti-democratic decisions were taken, it in fact refers to the well-planned coup process that had military, civilian, financial, bureaucratic and media dimensions, and which were simultaneously put into action.

One of the more symbolically important events of the February 28 process is the deployment of tanks to the streets of Sincan, Ankara by the General Staff. As a reaction to the Al-Quds night event organized by the Sincan municipality, which at the time belonged to the Welfare Party, tanks were moved to the streets of Sincan on February 4, 1997, 5 days after the event. Choosing Sincan for such a display was a direct message. While tanks were in the streets of Sincan, news about the rise of reactionism that did not reflect reality were being pushed by the media.

News of this kind were intentionally pushed by the media to legitimize the coming interference in civilian politics. Another important symbolic indicator of the era is that both de facto bans against religious people in public spaces were put into effect and anything projecting an image of religiousness was demonized and portrayed as deserving ridicule. The February 28 coup, which happened after such an atmosphere was successfully created, forced the government of Erbakan to resign on June 18, 1997, and subsequently the Welfare Party was closed on January 16, 1998, by the Constitutional Court.

Several names, including Prime Minister Erbakan, were barred from politics. In accordance with their agendas, the perpetrators of the February 28 coup implemented many bans during the process. But these bans were removed one by one in the 17 years following the electoral victory of the AK Party, founded on 14 August, 2001, under the leadership of Erdogan, in the elections held on November 3, 2002.

Gradual dismantling of the anti-democratic inheritance

The bans and rights abuses put into place with the claim that "February 28 will last a thousand years" were in effect for a long time. The reason behind the fact that these policies could continue during the AK Party era is the power held by the bureaucratic oligarchy in Turkey, which should never be neglected as an actor in Turkish politics. Along with this, despite all obstructions and interference attempts of various kinds, governments under the leadership of Erdogan removed the bans implemented as part of the February 28 process, contributing greatly to the democratization of society and politics in Turkey.

It might be hard to talk about all of them, but it is important with respect to remembering and understanding the oppression of the period that some of the important bans that were implemented by the perpetrators of the February 28 process and were removed by Erdogan are discussed here. Here, the first topic that must be mentioned are the headscarf bans. The headscarf ban was first forced on students studying in universities, and then was made more extensive, coming to include all public spaces.

Among such bans, the ban on headscarf in universities was the first to be removed in the AK Party era in 2011. In 2013, by making a change in the "Regulations Regarding the Dress and Appearance of Public Institutions Personnel," the ban on the headscarf for female public personnel was removed. Again in 2013, four female parliament members of the AK Party attended the general assembly with headscarves, signaling that the February 28 process was over. Another regulation introduced in 2014 removed the headscarf ban for students in middle schools and high schools. Another change in the Turkish Armed Forces Dress and Appearance Regulations in 2017 made it possible for female military personnel to wear headscarves. After the removal of this ban, it was seen that some female officers in the military preferred to wear the headscarf at work.

Another ban implemented as part of the February 28 process was regarding Imam Hatip schools. In 2009, the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) made the decision to end the policy of using a different multiplier in the university admission evaluations of Imam Hatip graduates. Following this, in 2012, Imam Hatip schools in middle school were re-opened with a legislative regulation. Similarly, bans on Quran courses were removed. Following the executive order number 653 accepted in 2011, the regulation introduced as part of the February 28 process limiting the minimum age of attendants in Quran courses was removed, creating a space for families to freely make their decisions.

Another well-known attribute of the perpetrators and sympathizers of the February 28 process is their eagerness to shut down political parties. The Welfare Party and subsequently the Virtue Party were shut down by the Constitutional Court. In 2008, a case to shut down the AK Party was opened and the AK Party was saved from being shut down with a single vote. Within this context, as part of the constitutional amendments in 2010, the AK Party implemented changes in the 149th article of the Constitution, making it harder to shut down political parties. Today, the decision to shut down a political party can only be taken if the Constitutional Court reaches a two-thirds majority.

In addition to these, extremely important steps were taken to secure democracy and remove anti-democratic influences in the judiciary by the restructuring of the High Council of the Judges and Prosecutors as well as the Constitutional Court. In the fight against anti-democratic influences in the military, unprecedented regulations were introduced in the era of AK Party governments. Some of these are the re-structuring of the Supreme Military Council and the removal of military justice and martial law.

Also, due to the oppression in the February 28 process, many public personnel were blacklisted, referred to disciplinary committees and forced to resign. The numbers show this clearly as between 1997 and 2001 roughly 11 thousand teachers were forced to resign, and 3 thousand 527 teachers were dismissed. This corresponds to 11 percent of the teacher shortage experienced in the period. In this period, 33 thousand 271 teachers underwent disciplinary inspections due to certain reasons, 11 thousand 890 received disciplinary punishments and 4 thousand 625 Ministry of National Education personnel were blacklisted. National Intelligence Agency (MİT) also flagged 2 thousand 639 public personnel, 418 academics and 949 teachers as "related to reactionism" within this period.

The psychological and physical oppression of the perpetrators of the February 28 coup on generally the conservative groups of the public in Turkey, which is observable in the above stated numbers, ended in the Erdogan era. The necessary efforts were made to ensure that the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Imam Hatip Schools, Quran courses and Religious Studies Faculties had the required personnel, preventing efforts to discredit these institutions. Discriminatory policies employed on public personnel solely due to their religious identities such as blacklisting, mobbing and disciplinary action were stopped.

April 27 military memorandum, violent Taksim Gezi Park protests, judiciary attack in December 2013,  various economic attacks and finally the bloody military coup attempt of July 2016... All these failed due to the strong support of the national will towards the civilian government.

Institutionalization of the democratic atmosphere

With the military coups that had been happening almost each decade, juntas within the military imposed their decisions on politics and society. The time span in which this state of affairs changed is the 17-year-long period of AK Party governance, which was founded in 2001 under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Certainly, the length of the period in which civilian politics under the leadership of Erdogan governed Turkey does not mean that military juntas have given up on coups. On the contrary, many coup attempts took place and these coup attempts were not limited to the military dimension, instead being conducted by employing different centers of power.

From the April 27 military memorandum to the violent Taksim Gezi Park protests, from the attempt in December 2013 by law enforcement and the judiciary to the economic attacks from abroad, and finally the bloody military coup attempt of July 2016, many coup attempts took place. But all these attempts failed due to the strong support of the national will towards the civilian government. Thus, as opposed to the other periods in which military coups took place, in the AK Party era, civilian politics resisted coup attempts with the authority it has taken from the nation, leading to the continued rule of democracy.On the 22nd anniversary of the February 28 coup, Turkey is at an important stage on the road of democratization. The most important thing that must be done following this stage is the creation of an atmosphere that will institutionalize these achievements. 

Yusuf Özkır
Özkır graduated from the Department of Journalism in the Faculty of Communication at Marmara University in 2003. His master's thesis and PhD dissertation were titled “The Way of Conveying Palestine-Related News in Media”, and “History, General Publication Policy and Identity of Hürriyet Daily”, respectively. He concentrates on structural transformation of Turkish media, media-politics relations, and the impact of social media on social events. Özkır is an Associate Professor at İstanbul Medipol University’s Faculty of Communication. Özkır also serves as the publishing coordinator of the montly periodical Kriter.