154. Telegram From the Embassy in Turkey to the Department of State1

6795. Subject: The Turkish Military Takeover—Background and Prospects.

1. (C)-Entire text.

2. Summary: Now that the Turkish military leadership has outlined its basic rationale and purposes, we offer this preliminary perspective on the September 12 takeover of the government.2 Based on what we know now and on comparisons with the interventions of 1960 and 1971, we believe that the Turks plan to make fairly extensive alterations in their political system.3 The objective will be to keep Turkey democratic, secular and pro-Western. The parliamentary system will be retained, but many here have urged the new architects to strengthen the Presidency. Extremist politics which had divided the country will be curbed. Overall, the revised system will place greater emphasis on the unity of the state and workability of its organs rather than on unrestricted personal liberties.

3. The major areas of continuity are Turkey’s economic system and external relations. The military leaders are strongly committed to the economic reform program begun earlier this year. In foreign relations, all previous alignments and policies, including strong support for settling the Cyprus problem, are to be continued without change.

4. The timetable for transfer of power to an elected civilian government will depend on (1) progress in extinguishing terrorism, which is down but by no means out; and (2) the degree of cooperation the military is able to elicit from the civilian elite which heretofore was sharply [Page 469] divided. Given the magnitude of the task the military has set for itself, the earliest anyone could reasonably expect a transfer of power would be, say, one year; it probably will take longer. End summary.

5. Background to the takeover: As those who have followed Turkish politics know, the September 12 “takeover” or “operation” (the terms Turks are using) is the third military intervention into politics since the founding of the Republic in 1923. All were planned and executed in conformity with Ataturk’s tradition (aka “Kemalis”) which entrusts to the military the role of watchdog over Turkey’s democracy. This intervention, like the previous two, is viewed by most Turks as acceptable under the circumstances and as an opportunity to improve the democratic system, building on the experience of the past. The Turkish saying, “one mistake is worth a thousand pieces of advice”, is their departure point.

6. In his September 12 speech, his subsequent pronouncements and his September 16 press conference, General Evren has devoted considerable attention to an analysis of the country’s problems—and somewhat less on future plans. A close reading, however, reveals considerable thought and a number of significant guideposts for future action. The major theme running through his analysis is deep concern and pessimism over the polarization of Turkish society by the wholesale dissemination of extreme leftist and religious ideology through the educational system and by use of terrorist intimidation tactics. General Evren tended to lay the blame for this at the door of Turkey’s politicians, whom he accused of selfishness, negligence and power-lust.

7. A second major point in Evren’s pronouncements is that the parliamentary system set up by the 1961 constitution and supporting legislation had foundered on the lack of provision for self-correction. He lamented the inability of the last Parliament to get together to pass security legislation which would have permitted martial law authorities to go after the growing terrorist threat. The same point has been made recently by many Turks and outsiders. Many believe that the framers of the 1961 Constitution, in an over-reaction to the strong-man rule of Menderes, completely hamstrung the new system by penalizing the big parties and forcing governments to rule by tenuous coalition.

8. Events leading to September 12: It is fairly clear now that planning for a military takeover became serious in mid-July after terrorist acts took the lives of an MP, former Prime Minister Erim and a prominent leftist labor leader. Evren reviewed these events and the increasing polarization of the country by extremist groups, terming the violence a “covert war” which took as many lives (5,000 dead, 15,000 injured) during the past two years as the main battle for Turkish independence at Sakarya (March–July 1921). The growing violence, he said, against the background of governmental ineffectiveness and Parlia [Page 470] mentary deadlock, gave the military no option but to take temporary control of the State organs before they collapsed.

9. The Turkish military’s world view: Evren also revealed that he and his colleagues were greatly concerned about the danger of external involvement in the growing anarchy in the country. He referred frequently to the exploitation of sectarian differences and ideological divisions aimed at destroying unity and leaving the country vulnerable to civil war and external manipulation. As examples, he cited two recent incidents in which leftists and religious “bigots” openly defied the unity of the State during the playing of the national anthem, shouting religious slogans or singing the “Internationale” in its place. While he did not directly blame the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, or Islamic revivalism in Iran and Libya, Evren made it clear that he and his colleagues believed that externally-directed or inspired ideological factions had dangerously weakened the democratic, secular foundations of the State. It is interesting to note that while some of the military leaders are reported to be practicing Muslims, they strongly believe in a secular political system, a cardinal Kemalist principle.

10. Foreign policy: We look for little or no change in Turkey’s external relations. Because of their importance, the Turkish military established early-on close and smooth working relation with the MFA. As a result, all pronouncements and actions have been carefully coordinated with Ilter Turkmen, Secretary General and Acting Head of the Ministry. The Ambassador’s contacts with Turkmen have been productive and reassuring regarding U.S. interests and the continuation of normal bilateral cooperation in the defense area.

11. Similarly, Evren has strongly reaffirmed Turkey’s active support for a settlement of the Cyprus problem through the current intercommunal talks and its support for Greek reintegration in NATO. As for Turkey’s relations with the USSR, Western Europe and the Middle East, there are no surprises. As expected, Evren reaffirmed Turkey’s close ties with NATO, relations with the EEC and Council of Europe, and bilateral relations with the Western democracies. He underscored efforts to maintain and strengthen “friendly and brotherly” ties with the Muslim Middle East. (Israel was not mentioned, but we expect no new moves regarding Turkish-Israeli relations).4 After the U.S., only the Soviet Union was given special mention, the latter in the context of a neighbor and of its special role in preserving world peace.

12. Internal reform: From Evren’s pronouncements, we are not yet sure how extensively the Constitution, political parties and elections [Page 471] laws and the State organs will be revised, but he has called for major surgery in several areas. He has left no room for doubt that the revisions will provide for a free, civilian-led, democratic parliamentary system, which will respect basic individual rights. It is likely, in view of the unworkability of the old system, that new procedures for electing a President will be devised. There is also a minority, but influential view in Turkey for creating a strong presidential system which would permit the President to break parliamentary deadlocks by, for example, calling for new elections.

13. From the strong criticism Evren has levelled against the now-dissolved Parliament, it is quite likely that divisive opposition tactics such as confidence and censure motions will become more difficult to mount. Election provisions may be changed from the present provincial party-slate to a single-member constituency system, a reform that has already been advocated. Small parties will probably have greater difficulty electing members to Parliament. Undoubtedly, too, the present restrictions against the use of radical or religious ideologies for political purposes will be tightened up (witness repeated castigation of “bigotry” in Evren’s public statements).

14. In addition, General Evren has called for reform of the educational system to help prevent the dissemination of radical, alien ideologies, for changes in the judiciary and the penal code (presumably to speed up the administration of justice), and for curtailing the political activities of private associations, some of which heretofore had been engaging in illegal political activities, including terrorism. There are major implications here for the degree of “openness” in the new system, but there is strong sentiment in the country favoring limits on extremism now seen as having been encouraged or at least permitted by the liberal Constitution of 1961. Among the values of their democratic system, Evren and his colleagues have indicated their preference for changes tending to unify and heal the divisions of the country, with somewhat less focus on personal liberties, which were widely believed to have been abused. The rebalancing of these elements will be among the most difficult and time-consuming tasks the new leadership faces.

15. Economic policy: The new leadership has also announced that the main elements of Turkey’s present economic and financial policies will be preserved. In his speech and press conference, as well as in actions to date, Evren has reassured those who may have wondered about the country’s continuing commitment to the economic reform program instituted in February 1980, and subsequent agreements with the IMF and the OECD governments providing balance of payments support. Evren has stated that the economic stabilization program will continue to be implemented. He has asked Turgut Ozal, the previous [Page 472] government’s chief economic advisor and strategist, to remain as the interim government’s chief economic advisor (see septel this subject).5

16. Timetable for return to civilian government: The strongest thread running throughout General Evren’s pronouncements is the commitment of the military establishment to democracy. The Generals realize, of course, that friends of Turkey are anxious that the transfer of power to an elected civilian government occur in the shortest possible time. General Evren is expected to establish a Cabinet shortly to handle the executive responsibilities of the nation, while constitutional changes and basic laws (political parties, elections) are drafted. When these arrangements are in place and elections held, he promised, “all personnel of the Turkish armed forces will remain outside of politics.”

17. It is still too early to venture predictions on a timetable for full return of power to civilian authority. However, at this juncture it is clear that: (1) neither General Evren nor his colleagues have any passion to rule; and (2) the extensive reforms contemplated will take time. Comparing the present situation with the previous two interventions, it took about 13 months for the military-dominated National Unity Committee (NUC) to hand over power in 1960–61. For this the NUC was strongly criticized. We think it likely that General Evren and his colleagues will try to avoid the delays and drawn-out debates that slowed the 1960–61 process, which involved the personal ambitions of a group of colonels, the trials and executions of Menderes and his colleagues, and prolonged arguments over the shape of the reforms.

18. The so-called coup by memorandum of 1971 offers less basis for comparison, since the military did not undertake major political reform and operated the government from 1971–73 through a series of “above parties” coalitions and the existing parties in the Parliament. These efforts, which included a heavy crackdown on the left, were temporarily successful, but ultimately did not prevent a recurrence of divisive politics.

19. In addition to undertaking a major reform of the political system, the current military leadership will have to carry out a nationwide campaign to extinguish terrorism and deal with its perpetrators. At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that this task can be carried out swiftly and thoroughly enough to prevent outbreaks of resistance and the recurrence of violence in the months ahead. On the contrary, we think that the extreme left, which is larger, more sophisticated, better organized and better armed than the radical left in 1971–73, will make a major effort to discredit the interim government [Page 473] and to turn the people against it, possibly by trying to provoke the military into “heavy handed” repression.

20. At the same time, Turkey’s civilian leaders, to whom power will be returned, are certain to bargain vigorously over any proposed reforms which might reduce their power. Signs of this have already appeared (Ankara 6769)6 in connection with the selection of an interim Cabinet. This bargaining is likely to continue as constitutional reform begins and could extend the military’s timetable, despite the best of intentions.

21. Given the potential obstacles the new leadership may have to overcome, we would be wise not to guess (and that is all anyone including the Turks can do at this stage) how long this whole process will take. We think that American officials would be advised not to use figures in conversations with outsiders. If pressed, we would have to say—given the size and complexity of the task—that it could take at least a year under the best conditions; but more likely a somewhat longer period will be needed if the military leaders carry out the extensive reform program envisioned in their pronouncements to date.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, Lot 82D275, 1981 Human Rights and Country Files, Box 19, Turkey—Sept thru Dec 1980. Confidential; Immediate. Repeated for information Priority to USICA, Adana, Istanbul, and Izmir; to Athens, Bonn, Brussels, Copenhagen, The Hague, Lisbon, Luxembourg, Oslo, Ottawa, Paris, Reykjavik, Rome, USNATO, USCINCEUR Vaihingen, USDOCOSouth Naples, HQ USAFE Ramstein, USNMR SHAPE, Nicosia, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Amman, Jidda, Damascus, and Islamabad.
  2. The National Military Command Center reported at 0330 EDT on September 12 that General Kenan Evren, Chief of the Turkish General Staff, took control of the Turkish Government at 2100 EDT on September 11. The Chief, Joint United States Military Mission for Aid to Turkey, was alerted in advance of the military takeover, and was also assured that the takeover did not signal any change in relations with the United States and that all U.S. citizens in Turkey would be protected. (Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–82–0217B, Box 18, Turkey 1980) It was the third such intervention of the military since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
  3. See footnote 3, Document 151.
  4. Turkey recognized Israel in March 1949, the only major Muslim country to have diplomatic relations with Israel. In January 1980, the Turkish Mission in Tel Aviv was raised to Embassy level.
  5. Reference is presumably to telegram 3937 from Istanbul, September 15, which noted that Özal would “apparently be retained by the new regime.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800441–0037)
  6. Telegram 6769 from Ankara, September 18, is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800445–0496.