Coups, Constitutions and the 27th of May

Sunday, May 27, 2012

It's May 27, and Spring has arrived at the Borderlands Lodge!

Okay, maybe not. I even had to shovel snow off of the Bordermobile in order to go buy some eggs this morning. I was wearing shorts and flip-flops, though, so at least it felt somewhat Spring-like.

It's the day before Memorial Day in the USA but in Turkey they're marking a different kind of memory. On this date in 1960, Turkey would experience the first of a series of military interventions, when Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was overthrown in a coup. 

As most Turkey-followers know, after the 1960 military takeover (and 1961 Constitution) there was an intervention in 1971 (no takeover), the big bad coup of 1980 (with its big bad new constitution), and the "press-conference coup" of 1997.

Since the late 1980s, changing interpretations of the May 27 Coup have constituted a proxy for which people in Turkey have discussed issues pertaining to democracy, civilian government, and the role of the military in politics. This was the subject of my old MA thesis (back before my borderland days), which looked at Menderes' political rehabilitation in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Of course, probably the most important reason why the Menderes story elicited so much regret in later years stemmed from the way in which it ended: with Menderes' execution by hanging in 1961.

Moments before his execution

Nevertheless, the brutality of coups past continues to shape contemporary political discourse in Turkey. The country's current AKP government has invoked both the coup of 1960 and that of 1980 in its effort to garner public support for the battle royale that the AKP has been engaged in vis-a-vis the country's military rulers over the past several years.

Consider, for example, the referendum of 2010 which allowed the AKP to pack the Constitutional Court by raising the number of justices sitting on it from 11 to 17.

How did supporters of the referendum frame their argument? By invoking May 27 and the specter of military intervention. Here's one of the posters from the referendum campaign:

"Yes" poster evoking execution of former Turkish PM Adnan Menderes. The poster reads "Yes for democracy and against military coups"

Oh yeah, by the way: the same referendum which allowed the AKP to exert more dominance over the Constitutional Court also paved the way for the coup leaders of 1980--who previously had been immune from prosecution--to be put on trial.

The referendum passed, and now Kenan Evren--former general, coup-leader, and president--is standing trial. And the AKP is preparing a new Constitution.

We'll see what happens with all of this, but the specter of coups, constitutions, and the symbolism of May 27th are still around. Maybe one day May 27th will just be a normal day, but for now it's still part of Turkey's political theatre. 

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