May 27 was the first operation that bureaucratic centers in the army directly employed to become the ruling power. Aware that they could not hold on to their power in the face of the popular vote, these centers put the armed forces into play to be able to remain in power or to keep the power under their control. This paved the way for the different forms of coups we experienced later on.
The plotters of the May 27 coup aimed to establish a system that would enable them to keep control over the ruling power and not require them to stage a coup ever again. They laid the foundation for the system we call “tutelage.” The 1961 Constitution documents the “institutionalization of tutelage.” The National Security Council (MGK) and the second assembly, which had a quota system, are clear and straightforward examples of this institutionalization. But the tutelage system was not only represented in these institutions. The entire constitution had been prepared with this spirit. However, a “spell” was cast on the 1961 Constitution that prevented many of us from realizing this spirit. By “many of us” I essentially mean the left tradition, including myself. For many years we thought the constitution was “liberal,” in fact that’s all we thought it was.
Where did this “spell” originate from, or where did it get its power from? Taken solely as a legal text, it’s true that the 1961 Constitution introduced a “system of freedoms” that was compatible with the standards of “contemporary democracies” and even surpassed them from time to time. This aspect of the 1961 Constitution was more evident when compared to the 1982 Constitution. A comparison was always made between the “two constitutions.” This legitimized the 1961 Constitution and even turned it into an icon. But these “two constitutions” actually had a very critical similarity. They both had a tutelary essence. The source of this essence was the 1961 Constitution. But no one ever talked about that.
Could a system that was predicated on fear and distrust against elected institutions, in other words popular vote, in other words the people truly be “liberal?” Of course it could not and ultimately it was not. Certain restrictions, particularly in the area of thought and organization, remained strictly intact during the period of the 1961 Constitution.
An oppressive practice was continuously reproduced by means of a judicial body that was designed as a tutelage institution. Yassıada alone functioned like a laboratory or a manual on having judicial bodies adopt this mentality. The “Yassıada Court,” the establishment and stance of which continuously ruined the “most basic universal principles of law,” became an ideal model for the judicial bureaucracy and its president, Salim Başol, became an idol for a significant number of judges.
On the other hand, the “system of freedoms,” which on paper was an advanced system was designed as a gift that could be “revoked” or “controlled.” The coup leaders were confident that they could take back freedoms in any way if they were being exploited, in other words if they were going to support opposition against the system. Ultimately they did this before a lot of time had elapsed.
With the impact of social movements, legal “systems” can start to produce dynamics that are different from what their founders had envisioned. The system of freedoms in the 1961 Constitution was also susceptible to being “deepened.” The movement in the left had made the socialization of freedoms a possibility. Tutelary forces realized this possibility and immediately launched an operation to restrict freedoms. However there was a “bond of gratitude” with respect to the first 10 years of the 1961 Constitution that spellbound a large portion of the left. This bond caused a timidity -- to put it lightly -- to condemn May 27 as a coup.
Another one of the attributes of the 1961 Constitution that spellbound the left is the “progressive” laws it had on social rights and union rights. But these were laws that could also be “revoked.” When these rights started becoming more “deep-rooted” with the impact of social struggles, the necessary interventions (March 12 and Sept. 12) were made and social rights and workers’ rights suffered the biggest “blow.”
These examples give us the opportunity to note that the most important lesson to be learned from the May 27 coup is this: Without democracy, there can be no freedom and no struggle for labor rights and equality. Unfortunately, a large segment of the left has still not learned this lesson. The debates on the developments taking place in the Republican People’s Party (CHP) are striking examples of this.
You can avoid being enchanted by the magician’s artificial power if you know that what you see is an illusion and you are able to recognize it, otherwise you will be enchanted by the magician. But this spell will not last very long. It will break at last with the slap of a “referendum.”
*Mithat Sancar is a teaching faculty member at the Ankara University School of Law.