After Atatürk's untimely death, his right-hand man, Ismet Inönü, and other like-minded leaders continued preaching the message of modernism, secularism, and nationalism. As the protectors of Kemal's adolescent secular nation, Turkey's leaders were left with many difficult decisions. Though Atatürk's sweeping changes paved the way for a future Western-style democracy, many social and economic issues stood in the way.
Despite popular support for Kemal's secular system, the threat of Islamic extremism worried the inexperienced administration. Atatürk's efforts to create a strong national identity encouraged most citizens to place tribal and ethnic allegiances on the back burner, but subversive movements continued to menace Turkish national unity (especially in the east). Believing the young state was not yet ready for full democracy, Kemal's successors implemented strict controls over their citizens.
On July 25, 1951, Turkey adopted Statute 5816, which states, “Anyone who publicly insults or curses the memory of Atatürk shall be imprisoned with a heavy sentence of between one and three years.” While this may seem harsh, more severe punishments are doled out for defacing or destroying statues, busts, or representations of the late Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Out of the Darkness Into the Fire
For nearly a decade, xenophobic and ethnocentric leaders closed Turkey off to many outside influences, curbing Kemal's cosmopolitan vision. After World War II, a ray of light was allowed in as Turkey became a charter member of the United Nations. The following year, in 1947, Turkey accepted economic and military aid from the United States, which hoped to gain Ankara's allegiance against the communists. While administrators tried not to take sides in the Soviet-American Cold War competition, things changed as Turkish troops entered the Korean War in 1950 as part of a U.N. force. By 1951, after a year of bloody conflict against communists, Turkey made its position abundantly clear by joining the anticommunist North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In 1950, in Turkey's first open elections, the opposition Democratic Party defeated President Inönü and the ruling People's Republican Party. Over the next decade, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and the Democrats relaxed many of Atatürk's secularist policies while creating new laws to ensure the absolute authority of the state. Focusing on health care, education, and infrastructure, the new government moved to modernize the cities and villages of Anatolia. These massive development programs inched Turkey closer to Kemal's modernist dream. However, Ankara's habitual overspending created devastating inflation and left many laborers unpaid.
By 1960, a deteriorating economy and dissatisfaction among Turkey's emerging young intellectuals and professionals moved Prime Minister Menderes to seek the support of Turkey's more conservative rural populations. As a result, the Democratic Party moved further away from Atatürk's secularism toward a more pro-Islamic stance. Concerned by the government's blatant disregard for foundational Kemalist principles, the Turkish military stepped in to protect their savior's secular state.
Politicians, God, and Generals
On May 27, 1960, a second Turkish republic was born as General Cemal Gürsel and his National Unity Committee wrested power from the deviant Democrats. To punish those who had strayed from Kemal's pure path, the High Court of Justice was established. In the end, close to 600 Democratic leaders were found guilty, leading to the execution of Prime Minister Menderes and eleven others.
In an effort to avoid future wandering from the true Kemalist track, the new government drafted a new constitution, split the GNA into a two-chamber parliament, and created a protective Constitutional Court. Though former President Inönü was narrowly re-elected as Turkey's premier, just four years later the conservative Justice Party (basically a revamped Democratic Party) and its leader, Süleyman Demirel, were voted into power.
Over the next five years, Turkey's political situation spiraled out of control. Clashes between rightists (often Sunni Muslims) and leftists (largely from the heterodox Alevi tradition) left thousands dead, threatening the unity of Kemal's secular state. Recurring urban terror attacks, growing unrest among the impoverished, and violent Kurdish separatist groups challenged the government's authority and competency. In 1971, the military once again used its might to secure the floundering state, as martial law was imposed and Prime Minister Demirel was forced to resign.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkish nationalists revived pan-Turkic passions by establishing ties with the newly independent Central Asian republics. As the ancestral Turkic homeland, Turkey gave financial and logistical support to countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. In addition, the central government hoped these nations would see Turkey as a secular, modern, and Muslim example.
The 1973 elections ushered the People's Republican Party and its leader, Bülent Ecevit, into power. Within a year, Turkey was at war in Cyprus over Greek plans to annex the island's largely Turkish northern region. Though Turkish victories in Cyprus revived nationalist pride, political, religious, and ideological differences ignited a new period of civil unrest within the year. This ended in 1980 with yet another military coup and period of martial law.
With General Kenan Evren in charge, civil order was restored, thousands (including GNA leaders) were arrested, a new constitution was created, and the parliament was reduced to a single chamber.
Following the 1983 elections, civilian rule was re-established as the new Motherland Party gained control of the GNA. As centrists, the Motherland Party sought to end Turkey's internal feuds (conservative versus liberal, East versus West, and religious versus secular) by focusing on compromise and reconciliation. In the words of Motherland Party leader and former Prime Minister Turgut Özal, “Turkey has no further need of reforms or continual revolution . . . Freedom of thought and speech, freedom of religion together with secularism as its guarantee, and freedom of enterprise will lead us to become a great civilized and civilizing power once again.”