The CHP was unhappy, and even frustrated, that the Democrat Party (DP) won three consecutive elections and formed a single-party government. The CHP had hoped that the military would help it return to its popular and prestigious days it once enjoyed until the DP came to power in 1950.
According to Erdelhun, the military junta managed to not only unseat the DP government with the May 27 coup, but it also diverted the newly improving Turkish democracy from its path.
“The main opposition party [CHP] spread rumors such as the ruling party [DP] was making plans for a coup or insurgency. Prominent figures from the CHP started to provoke the military against the government after they were sent out of Parliament following their address on April 26 . The ruling party was hoping to curtail the prosperity of a privileged class [hinting at the military] in society. However, members of the main opposition party disseminated propaganda that the DP would cut back the salaries of military officers and leave the families of officers in poor financial straits. According to the CHP, the ruling party was using the money it cut from the salaries of military officers for its political purposes. Some generals and other high-ranking officers who were disappointed at not being promoted to higher ranks in the latest Supreme Military Council [YAŞ] meeting and others who were forced to retire [in the same meeting] started to voice their expectation for an immediate change of the DP government. Moreover, the military grasped a chance to take on an active role in domestic politics after the declaration of martial law [in İstanbul and Ankara]. Martial law and provocations by the main opposition party encouraged some ill-intentioned groups within the TSK to act courageously [against the government],” noted Erdelhun in his notes.
In 1950, Adnan Menderes’ DP was swept to power with a crushing victory against the CHP in parliamentary elections. Up until then, the CHP had remained the single political party in power. The elections ushered in an era after which the CHP was unable to return to power on its own. The DP was victorious in elections in 1955 and 1957 as well. Angered by grinding defeats in the three elections, the CHP started to accuse the ruling party of violating the constitution and began to provoke the military against the DP government. A failed assassination attempt against İnönü in the western province of Uşak in 1959 increased the tension between the ruling and opposition parties.
On April 18, 1960, İnönü openly threatened Menderes with a coup, accusing his party of censoring the press, engaging in acts that would harm the republic and the principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, and violating the constitution. On May 27, the military junta took control of the administration, alleging that the state’s secular character was at risk. According to the officers who staged the coup, it was aimed at putting an end to activities against secularism in the country. However, it is widely believed the coup was carried out to restore the administration to its original state, where power was only shared among the elite of the country.
There were earlier claims pointing to the CHP contributing to the May 27 coup. According to veteran journalist Orhan Birgit, who spoke to reporters last year, he worked on organizing students in riots against the government before the 1960 coup. Birgit was a senior CHP official at the time and a lawyer by profession. “I was head of the CHP Beyazıt district office [in İstanbul] then. A group of [university] students came to me, asking for my help. They asked me what they could do [to protest the government]. I told them to stage sit-ins on their campuses and to stage demonstrations. However, the incidents later got out of control,” he said.
Turkey witnessed large-scale student protests ahead of the 1960 coup. The protests started at İstanbul University in April 1960 and quickly spread to other campuses. Clashes between student groups and security forces led to the declaration of martial law in İstanbul and Ankara, and all universities and vocational colleges were closed down for one month.
According to Erdelhun, the military junta purposefully increased tension in Turkey and provoked university students into becoming more violent because increased tensions in the country would allow the junta to overthrow the DP government and seize control of the country more easily. The junta even released a group of students who had been earlier detained for violent acts -- despite an order from military higher-ups to take the students to a detention center. “During a helicopter-assisted survey of an area [where students had staged a violent protest earlier in the day], I saw that a large group of students who had been detained were being set free [by military officers]. Those students later held another protest and attacked a military building,” recounted the general in his notes.
‘Students pulled into domestic politics with war academy march’
Erdelhun included his memories of a march staged by students at the Harbiye War Academy in his diaries. According to the general, military higher-ups hoped to pull the war academy students into politics with the march, and they achieved their objectives.
The march was interpreted by many as a show of strength against the DP government and threatening its members with a coup d’etat. Celal Bayar, who was the commander in chief and president at the time, stopped the students from marching to the Çankaya presidential palace. The president would later be accused of terrorism for this reason during his trial at Yassıada.
The march was organized by Ulay, the commander of the Harbiye War Academy. Erdelhun wrote in his diaries that military officers who were not promoted to higher rank and therefore unhappy with the DP government were behind the march. Erdelhun complained in his diaries that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were reluctant to punish the organizers and participants of the march, which further encouraged students from the war academy to participate in later political demonstrations.
“On May 21, 1960, the head of the Indian government, Jawaharlal Nehru, was in Ankara for an official visit. On my way back from a lunch with Nehru, I saw some war academy students marching on Atatürk Boulevard. I informed the [Harbiye] war academy commander and the land forces commander after I arrived in my office at the General Staff. There were groups of students convening at Atatürk Boulevard and around Parliament, and the Martial Law Command was not taking any precautions [to stop the students]. At about 3 p.m., I learned that a group of about 200 students, led by Gen. [Burhanettin] Uluç started to march toward the General Staff headquarters and around 600 war academy students in civilian attire were following the group. The state was supposed to arrest the students. Then I received a phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office. When I arrived at the Office of the Prime Minister, President [Celal] Bayar, Prime Minister [Adnan] Menderes and Defense Minister [Ethem] Menderes received me and asked me about the march. They said it was an innocent protest by the students. The academy should launch an investigation into the matter and if the students were found to be guilty, they should be punished by the academy [instead of being arrested by state authorities]. I complied with the order so as not to meddle with the government’s business.”
May 27, mother of all coups in Turkey
Turkey stepped into the multi-party system with the parliamentary elections of May 14, 1950. The Democrat Party (DP), led by Adnan Menderes, came out victorious from the ballot box, ending a 27-year, single-party era in Turkey during which the Republican People’s Party (CHP) remained in power. After the DP swept to power, Menderes immediately ordered that the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) be recited in Arabic again, a move that created immense enthusiasm and delight in Turkish society. The CHP government had issued a circular in 1932 that stayed in effect until 1950 for the recitation of the call to prayer to be in Turkish.
The DP government launched an immense campaign for economic development, mobilizing state and private institutions to invest in all corners of the country. Economic development brought with it development in the social arena, with broader rights granted to individuals. Unfortunately, the administration of Turkey by the DP, which won three consecutive elections with a majority, crushing the CHP in each of them, ended only 10 years later.
The military junta, led by a 37-member National Unity Committee (MBK), staged Turkey’s first coup d’état on May 27, 1960, and arrested several leading figures of the Turkish state and military. Among those arrested were President Celal Bayar, Prime Minister Menderes, Chief of General Staff Gen. Rüştü Erdelhun, ministers, mayors and military officers of high rank. Around 3,500 high-ranking military officers were forced to retire on the grounds that they did not support the coup, among them 235 generals. Around 520 judges and prosecutors were removed from office, and up to 1,400 university instructors were fired. Around one-and-a-half years after the coup, Prime Minister Menderes, Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan and Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu were executed by the military junta.
For some political analysts, May 27 was the result of the Turkish judiciary’s failure to punish coup plotters. In 1958, a military officer informed Prime Minister Menderes about preparations for a coup by a military junta. It was Maj. Samet Kuşçu who raised the alarm about the preparations. Nine high-ranking officers were arrested and tried by a military court; however, the verdict was disappointing. The nine were cleared of charges, while the informant, Kuşçu, was discharged from the military and sentenced to two years in prison for slander. But in May 1960, when the military staged the coup, the nine officers were found to belong to one of the cells in the junta. İstanbul Sunday’s Zaman
Who was Rüştü Erdelhun?
Erdelhun was born in the northwestern province of Edirne in 1894. He graduated from the War Academy in 1914 as a lieutenant. He joined the Turkish army in 1921 to serve in the War of Independence and was honored with a medal for his service after the war. He served at the defense attaché offices in Tokyo, Rome and London. A supporter of close ties between Turkey and Western countries, Erdelhun had close connections to many foreign bureaucrats. He frequently attended NATO meetings. Furthermore, he spoke English, French, Japanese, German, Arabic, Russian and Ottoman Turkish. He remains Turkey’s first and only chief of General Staff to speak six foreign languages.
Erdelhun was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1945 and became a major general two years later. Promotion to lieutenant general followed in 1952, two years after the Democrat Party (DP) was swept to power, and he became a full general in 1956. Erdelhun became the land forces commander on Aug. 1, 1958, and in only three weeks he became Turkey’s 10th chief of General Staff. He stayed in office until the coup on May 27, 1960.
Thanks to his close contacts with foreign bureaucrats and his colleagues from abroad, Erdelhun contributed to the modernization of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The Turkish military purchased modern weapons and military equipment during his term in office. He also changed the uniforms of military officers. Many officers were sent to the US for military training. It was his intention for Turkey to possess a strong and modern army.
Erdelhun’s nephew, Turgut Sayarer, told Sunday’s Zaman that his uncle was strongly opposed to military coups. He knew that developed countries would never approve of a coup, and therefore he always preached to his fellow officers the importance of avoiding any act that would damage Turkish democracy. However, his opposition to coups would soon spell his end. He became the center of harsh criticism by officers of lower rank who aspired to overthrow the DP government. He was accused of close cooperation with the president and the prime minister against the military. He was tried on charges of violation of the constitution. He was 66 years old when the May 27 coup was staged. Initially, he was sentenced to death by the military junta, but his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. After spending around one year in prison, he was pardoned by the newly elected president, Cemal Gürsel. He passed away in İstanbul when he was 89 years old. İstanbul Sunday’s Zaman