Turkey Reacts to Death of 1980 Coup Leader

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The death of General Kenan Evren, leader of the infamous 1980 military coup and subsequent president of Turkey, has forced the country’s political class and its voters to confront a reality that many of them would have rather left alone. On one hand, General Evren is remembered for the ruthlessness and cruelty with which his regime dealt against its political enemies. On the other hand, many credit Mr. Evren for Turkey’s economic turnaround, not to mention its current constitution and many social reforms. But in the context of current Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s ambitious consolidation of power, Mr. Evren’s death may prove to be the catalyst for an honest assessment of what the Turkish voters really want from their political leadership.

The burial of General Evren, as a Daily Sabah report points out, was a low key affair with no senior officials or politicians present, fearing association with an indicted coup leader, who was awaiting the court’s verdict on the appeal of the sentence previously passed on him: “Journalists were not allowed to follow the ceremony held at the office. The body was later taken to the Ahmet Hamdi Akseki Mosque, where it was placed on a catafalque. After the funeral prayers attended by family and friends, Evren was buried at the state cemetery as per his family’s wishes. No senior government official or opposition leader attended the ceremony. Evren, who has come to symbolize the widespread torture, executions and military tutelage of politics that came after the coup, is a hate figure in the eyes of most. Evren, who was tried and found guilty for leading a coup had been demoted to a private but the decision was suspended pending an appeal.”

In an op-ed for Today’s Zaman, Doğu Ergil suggests that Mr. Evren’s death has brought to the fore his divisive legacy well as the ambivalent attitudes towards him: “The 1980 coup brought a forced peace to society but a very heavy-handed administration that stifled freedoms, limited civic rights and guaranteed the tutelary role of the military regime through a new Constitution and paternalistic institutions….Evren and his four comrades were hailed as heroes and rewarded with impunity and high honors. Evren became president of the country. Law and order returned and the economy that had been in shambles bounced back. But the legacy of the brutality of the military intervention remained buried in the public psyche….Evren’s death has revealed the hypocrisy in all of us. We hail the death of the man that was crowned the savior of the country 35 years ago while we bury the same man with his legacy as a ruthless dictator while retaining the laws and institutions he helped implant in our political system. Does that make us democrats?”

This ambivalence toward Mr. Evren’ legacy is also clear in the attitude of the current political class which, according to Daily Sabah’s Osman Can, has not moved beyond the general’s constitutional, social, and economic reforms: “Evren is the architect of the constitutional order in this country. He did not only enact the new constitution, but also introduced all the fundamental laws of the country until Dec. 6, 1983, when he left the administration to civilians, even though it was perfunctorily. All the laws about political life, organized life and labor struggle were amended according to the wishes of generals. And all the laws on the judicial system were also enacted during that period. When a new government was formed on Dec. 6, 1983, Parliament did not have a need to enact a new law apart from the fields of economy and social security. The coup-stagers, led by Evren, did not only stage a coup, but also founded the legal and political order of Turkey….And Turkey is still ruled with this constitution. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) are vigorous advocates of the fundamental choices in this constitution. All in all, the 1980 coup was not an ordinary coup, and Evren was not an ordinary coup leader. Here lies the misfortune of Turkey.”

Adding to the general’s complicated legacy is the argument that Evren opened up the way for Erdogan to be more overt in his use of religious symbols. At least that is what Murat Yetkin argues in an op-ed for Hurriyet Daily News: “Despite the heavy and shallow propaganda of Kemalism against socialist, Islamist and Kurdish nationalist movements, which actually backfired in many layers of society, it was Evren who broke records in the opening of religious vocational İmam-Hatip schools – at least until the era of the (now President) Tayyip Erdoğan-led Justice and Development Party (AK Parti). It was also Evren’s constitution that made religion classes compulsory in primary and secondary education, and Evren was the first and only leader to deliver political speeches during rallies with a copy of the holy Quran in his hand – again until Erdoğan.”

But Yeni Safak’s Ali Bayramoğlu has no doubts that Evren’s legacy on the Kurdish question is a negative one, having exacerbated the relationship of the Turkish population with its Kurdish minority: “When we visualize the annihilating and exterminating moves they’ve applied against the Kurdish people, September 12th had been a great factor in the establishment of this movement, in its progress and helped them find a community base. In the 80s, after seeing this oppression, the only resort was to go up into the mountains. If there had been no coup in the 80s, if the Kurdish people were told that they had rights, maybe this movement wouldn’t have developed this much. Even if this was an attempt to develop the movement, maybe they couldn’t have grown this much…This is one of Evren’s legacies. This is the legacy which Turkey should be purified from and confront. The marks of ‘why the Kurdish issue is not only an armed issue’ lie here.”

But the 1980 coup also had important economic consequences for the country, with Akif Emfre crediting General Evren regime for turning Turkey decisively toward economic liberalism: “The Sept. 12, 1980 coup d’état, which came to the fore in Kenan Evren’s personality, had a particular place among other coups. It was probably the last hierarchical intervention of the established order, as we know it, in terms of renewing itself and transforming the system….The Sept. 12 coup under Evren’s leadership is utterly a restoration movement under the Cold War circumstances. It was a highly planned and hierarchical coup where the goals and the means to achieve them were calculated…. The most important cause and effect relationship of the Sept. 12 coup is the fact that Turkey took a step towards the neo-liberal period. With this aspect, economic grounds and the economic-political transformation of the system is an important factor.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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