The elections of November 1983 are unique in the history of modern Turkey. They took place after three years of military rule, during which the entire political structure was completely altered. The alleged aim of this restructuring was to prevent a return to the situation which prevailed before September 12, 1980, the day the Turkish armed forces seized power. The military regime crushed the terrorist movements and closed down all the political parties, and simultaneously produced a new quasi-presidential constitution as well as new political parties and electoral laws. The government disqualified all prominent former politicians from political activity and permitted only new politicians to begin to form new parties on April 25, 1983. The National Security Council (NSC) — led by Gen. Kenan Evren (who became president in November 1982) and consisting of the commanders of the army, the navy, the air force, and the gendarmerie — retained the power to veto, without giving a reason, any founding member of a new party. It therefore took four months before three parties were able to qualify to contest the elections.

The three parties (out of 17 which survived the veto process) were the Nationalist Democracy Party (NDP), the Motherland Party (MP), and the Populist Party (PP). The leaders of all three parties came out of the post-September 12 regime. The NDP, led by a retired general, Turgut Sunalp, was considered the true representative of the September 12 philosophy and the only party capable of guaranteeing continuity. In the months prior to the elections, the full weight of the state was therefore placed behind it. Yet, on election day, Turkish voters refused to support the NDP, and the party finished a humiliating last. From the results — 211 seats and 45 percent of the vote for the Motherland Party, 117 seats and 30 percent for the Populist Party, and 71 seats and 24 percent for the Nationalist Democratic Party — one may conclude that the voters regarded the election as a referendum on the regime of September 12: they were more concerned to express their disapproval of the government (though not of the restoration of public order) than to judge the character of the alternatives offered to them. We might also abandon the notion that the average Turkish voter has little interest in issues like freedom of speech and human rights, and thinks exclusively in terms of law and order or economic stability.

The 1983 election also raised questions about politics and society in Turkey. When the military commanders seized power and set up their regime, they initially said that their aim was to restore law and order (by crushing terrorism) and establish political stability. They held the politicians responsible for Turkey’s troubles and therefore forbade all overt political activity until further notice. Political parties were dissolved, and the leaders of two of them — the neo-fascist Nationalist Action Party and the Islamist National Salvation Party — were put on trial.

A New Order

Before long, the program of the new regime became more ambitious — namely, to provide the country with a new political structure. The problem was whether this structure could be imposed on the existing socioeconomic foundations. For a time it seemed as though it could. The country gave an overwhelming vote of 92 percent for the new constitution in the referendum of November 1982. This is not the place to discuss the reasons for this astonishing result. Even the opponents of the regime were surprised by the show of popular support. Turkey’s rulers were both surprised and delighted. It gave them a tremendous sense of confidence and thereby accelerated the process leading to the general election.

Ali Koçman, the president of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association, claimed that he had expected only a 70 percent “yes” vote. Describing the referendum as an election, he said that “The most absolute preference has emerged: The Turkish nation has said ‘no!’ to anarchy, terrorism and inflation. The confidence placed in the person of Mr. Evren has played a big role.” For Nurullah Çezgin, the president of the Istanbul Chamber of Industries, “the ‘yes’ vote in such a high proportion was a sharp reminder that Turkish society had not forgotten the pre-September 12 days.” Halit Narin, the president of the Confederation of the Turkish Employers’ Unions, overwhelmed by the result, exclaimed: “We must work with an understanding of democracy which doesn’t take the West as a model but which will become a model for the West.” [1] Kenan Evren, the general who had become president of the Turkish Republic as a result of the referendum, spoke in a similar vein and announced in his address to the nation on November 12 that the general elections would be held in October 1983 providing there were no important reasons to prevent them. The unofficial, and as yet illegal, election campaign had begun.

The problem confronting the generals was a straightforward one: how to manipulate the voters of the parties they had dissolved. The front-line politicians — those in the National Assembly or in government — were barred from politics, but that left the next layer in the wings waiting for their cue to come on stage. These men naturally wanted to form a party or parties which would be able to mobilize the old votes. Thus within a week of the referendum, the press began to report rumors that “attempts were being made to form a ‘center party’ which would bring together Justice Party and Republican People’s Party votes.” [2]

All political activity, even a social gathering of ex-politicians, was proscribed. But the funeral of Ibrahim Öktem in Istanbul on November 18 provided the opportunity to bypass this ban. Öktem, a former member of Parliament and minister of education, had been a member of the Democrat Party in the early 1950s. He joined the party dissidents in 1955, formed the ephemeral Freedom Party, and later moved to the RPP. There he joined its left-of-center faction in the mid-1960s. This eclectic political past permitted politicians of all hues to be present at his funeral. As far as Republicans were concerned, Öktem’s corpse was playing the role of reconciling the various factions within the party; Milliyet described the funeral as taking on the atmosphere of a party’s general congress. [3]

By the end of November, there were more rumors about the formation of a “center party.” Hüsamettin Cindoruk was mentioned as someone likely to form the party which would draw on former JP support. Turgut Özal, the former deputy prime minister responsible for the economy who resigned in July 1982, was mentioned as another potential leader of a new party. [4] But the most interesting kite that began to fly as the generals’ response to the politicians was the talk of a “center-right” or “state party” under Prime Minister Bülent Ulusu, a former admiral who had led the civil government since the military takeover.

Ulusu seemed to be the ideal candidate to lead a party which could unite “moderates” in the two main parties and also provide continuity for the September 12 regime. Though an admiral, he lacked the military bearing that would be the political undoing of retired Gen. Sunalp. He was soft-spoken and had the knack of establishing rapport with people he came into contact with; his regular press conferences had made him popular with journalists, whose questions he answered in a civilized and logical way. Ulusu responded to the rumor by saying that he would take the initiative to form a party if he were convinced that such a step would serve the nation’s interests. President Evren, in his various speeches, supported the creation of such a party, as did the business circles which were said to be encouraging Özal to come to an understanding with Ulusu. We shall have to consider why Bülent Ulusu, with all this support, did not form a party. For the moment, all public speculation was dampened when Evren reminded the country that the National Security Council’s Communiqué 71 forbidding political activity was still in effect, and that all talk and speculation about forming parties was therefore illegal. He ordered the press not to publish any reports on this subject. Such activity, he said, would remain illegal until the passage of the political parties law. [5]

Right from the Top

The generals had obviously been alarmed by the flurry of political activity despite the two-year moratorium. The NSC had carried out a vast program of institutional reform — the new constitution, a political parties law, an electoral law, a trade union law — but it seemed to have failed to destroy the political hold of the old parties on the country. Was it in fact possible to create new politics? To do so would require unifying the right in Turkey, badly fragmented by the socioeconomic developments of the 1960s and the 1970s. This process had split the Justice Party and led to the rise of the small rightist parties such as the Democratic Party, the National Order (later Salvation) Party, and the Nationalist Action Party. These parties had been able to call the political tune throughout the 1970s. On the other hand, the results of the by-elections and the partial Senate elections of November 1979 suggested that these parties were losing their electoral hold and that the votes of the right were again coalescing around Süleyman Demirel and the Justice Party. By seizing power and putting an end to party politics, the generals inadvertently reversed this entire process. They were forced to start from scratch to try to impose unity on the right from the top.

Some months after restoring the ban on political activity, President Evren began a campaign to woo the electorate away from the old politicians towards the new politicians the regime was trying to create. He went around the country using his considerable oratorical ability to convince his audiences. His Malatya speech of November 11, 1982, is a good example of his approach:

There will be a period of elections before us. You will choose your new representatives in this election. I advise you to be very careful when you elect these new representatives. The old ones are up to their underhanded tricks. We know this, and you ought to know it too. If there had been virtue in old things, flea markets would have been bathed in glory. Find new personalities. Find new representatives. I have told you on a number of occasions what kind of qualities they ought to possess. Find these people from among yourselves, elect them and send them. We, too, will withdraw into a corner when the time comes. No one is indispensable in this world. Everyone ought to know how to withdraw to one side after having done his duty. If he doesn’t know, then those who will drive him out by force [Le, the armed forces] might come forward. I urge you to be wide awake on this matter.

Evren’s speeches in southeastern Turkey were typical of the warnings he had given on many occasions before the intervention of September 12, 1980. Their meaning was clear: If the voters did not choose the “right people,” the armed forces would intervene again. [6] For the next eight months, President Evren kept repeating the theme: “Don’t listen to or elect the old politicians who led the country to chaos and disaster. Turkey needs new leaders.” [7]

In the end, this interminable barrage of propaganda — always shown on prime television time and often preempting popular programs — proved to be counter-productive. Few would have predicted such an outcome, given Evren’s personal popularity. Behind the scenes, the high command continued to search for their own candidate to lead the center-right party which, they hoped, would attract the majority of former RPP-JP votes at the coming election. On April 13, 1983, the premier Ulusu formally announced that he would not become a party leader, though he would stand for election. Up to that point, he had said that he would undertake the duty of leading a party if he were asked to do so. Asked by whom? This he had never made clear. We may deduce that he wanted to be invited to form the party by the high command, and that is where agreement could not be reached.

The High Command

The National Security Council was only the tip of the iceberg I have described for convenience as the “high command.” Hidden from view but exerting great influence were the martial law commanders. These men controlled the armed forces at the provincial level and actually ran the country under martial law. Behind them stood the officer corps of the four branches. Next to nothing is known about the political infighting within the high command, but it is generally agreed that there were two main factions which may be identified by the tired but useful categories as “moderates” on the one hand and “extremists” or “hardliners” on the other.

The “principle of hierarchy,” established in the armed forces in the mid-1960s, kept differences between the factions from emerging into the open; both sides took shelter under the ideological umbrella of Kemalism. The way this ideology was defined and implemented often reflected the power of one group or the other. Decisions seemed to be made collectively and by consensus. President Evren ought to be seen as the spokesman once decisions had been reached, and not the “strongman” he appeared to be to people at home and abroad.

The moderates were inclined to reach a compromise with the civilians by forming an alliance with the second layer of politicians from the old parties. Ulusu, with his two-and-a-half year term as premier, was eminently suited to lead such an alliance. A retired admiral, he was known to harbor liberal values; he is said to have played a role in moderating somewhat a very harsh regime. The extremists, said to be led by Gen. Necdet Üruğ, saw him as a “compromiser” who would not implement their version of Kemalism. Thus, on the very day Ulusu announced that he would not lead any party, the press reported that retired Gen. Turgut Sunalp, known to be close to Üruğ, would form the center-right-party, the state party. [8] The extremists or hardliners seemed to be acquiring political control.

The new parties law was published in the Resmi Gazete on April 24. Each party had to be founded by at least 30 citizens qualified to be elected to the Assembly — except for 723 ex-politicians who were barred — and the NSC had the right to veto any founding members without having to give reasons for the vetoes. (This clause would be operative only until the general election.) Next day, on April 25, the NSC removed the ban on politics, marking a new phase in Turkey’s political life.

The first outcome of this return to politics was that a number of former politicians not under the ban announced that they would form parties. Most of these intentions came to naught, but it became quite clear that the right was as divided as ever, with no leader of any stature to unite around. On paper, the right’s task was simple: to create a party that would win the majority of the “yes” votes cast in the referendum. The assumption — a rather naive one — was that all those who had voted for the 1982 constitution and for President Evren must be disposed to the right. The left — that is to say supporters of the defunct RPP, for no one to the left of the RPP would have dreamed of forming a party in the prevailing political climate — was also divided. The veteran socialist politician and founder of the Workers’ Party of Turkey, Mehmed Ali Aybar, asked if he would serve in any political party, replied, “I would not serve in just any party, but I would join a socialist party. Given the fact that this is not possible in today’s constitutional setup, I am simply biding my time.” [9] But the choice of a professor, Erdal Inönü, the son of Ismet Inönü who had dominated Turkish politics from 1938 to 1972, gave the left a head start. The younger Inönü had no political past; with his name and the myths and sentiments it aroused, he was ideally suited to unite the various factions of the RPP.

While the left adopted the Inönü name as their symbol of unity, the right turned to the other grand old man of Turkish politics, the centenarian Celal Bayar, who had been president in the Menderes era. Every right-of-center politician, including the armed forces’ candidate Sunalp, visited Bayar to kiss his hand and obtain his blessing. Bayar saw everyone who came but committed his support to no one. His position was clear: he wanted two major parties to emerge in this new political era and he did not want to see the vote of the right fragmented. He represented the civil forces who wanted the classical two-party system which would provide stability with competition. The army wanted one overwhelmingly strong party — with weak and ineffective parties in opposition — which would provide continuity for the September 12 regime, along with all the trappings of parliamentary government.

Social Bases and The New Order

This was the last thing the social groups that had emerged since 1945 wanted. These included industrialists and businessmen, professionals and workers, and even the petty bourgeois small merchant and trader. Most of these had benefited from the army’s crushing of terrorism, but they all resented the heavy hand of the state which came with it. The virtual one-party state which the army was trying to engineer provided these groups with no room for maneuver; they were therefore determined to prevent it. The Turkish people were not ready to accept an indigenous Gaullism, even though politician-academics like Professor Aydin Yalcin had been proposing such an authoritarian parliamentary model before September 12, 1980. The military intervention and the emergence of Evren seemed to give vitality to this model. But after the restoration of political activity no “Gaullist” party seemed to emerge. Moreover, the new parties law ruled out “Gaullism” from Turkey: Article 97 charges all parties, rather than any particular one, with the responsibility of continuing the September 12 regime, forcing them, in theory at least, into a common ideological mold. [10]

Perhaps nothing disappointed the generals more than the fact that “the people” had failed to create a political party with new politicians. The opposite seemed to be happening: parties were being formed and they were then trying to find a political base. Within a period of a few weeks, 17 parties were announced, most of them extremely short-lived. The ruling groups feared a return to coalition governments of the type that had ruled Turkey between 1975 and 1980, and Evren issued a warning against that eventuality: “Whatever we suffered we suffered during the period of coalitions. Let [the parties] come together; we do not want another period of coalitions. [11]

Vehbi Koç, head of Koç Group, one of the largest industrial holding companies in Turkey, expressed the same fear on May 3. He argued that in Europe, especially in Italy, wherever there were coalition governments, there was political instability and even crisis. “For my part, I am in favor of Turkey being ruled, if possible, by two parties as in England and America.” [12] Despite the mushrooming of parties, that was the direction Turkish politics seemed to be taking, if left to itself. A social democratic party, soon to be known by the acronym SODEP, was taking shape under Erdal Inonu’s leadership; its goal was to garner what had been the votes of the RPP. To the right-of-center, the old Justice Party was revived under the name Great Turkey Party, the title of Süleyman Demirel’s book; the party’s emblem was initially the Bosphorus Bridge and a dam, both images intimately associated with the ex-JP leader. The military was equally furious with the party’s second choice of a logo — a hand — since it played on the name of Demirel (“iron hand” in Turkish).

If it was political stability the army wanted, why did it decline to settle for the two-party formula proposed by Koç? The answer lies in the NSC’s image of itself as the formulator of new politics, an image it arrived at after coming to power in September 1980. It also reflects the army’s automony — not total by any means — from Turkey’s dominant classes. It simply was not ready to behave in the way business circles — themselves no longer monolithic — wanted it to. The process of integrating the armed forces into the rapidly evolving market economy and society, which began in the 1960s, was still far from complete, and the generals saw themselves acting on behalf of society as a whole rather than on behalf of certain sectors.

Advice and Detention

When the NSC saw that the Great Turkey Party was not even attempting to disguise its links with the dissolved JP, it responded angrily. All its advice and words of warning had gone unheeded, and the former politicians were behaving with total contempt for the soldiers. On May 31, barely a month after the restoration of political activity, the Grand Turkey Party was ordered to close down; eight ex-JP men, including Hüsamettin Cindoruk, the party’s leader, and his mentor Süleyman Demirel, were taken off to detention in Çanakkale where they were forced to reside until further notice. The former foreign minister I. S. Çaglyangil was in Europe at the time and was told to go directly to Çanakkale on his return to Turkey. This he duly did. It is possible to sense the pashas’ anger and indignation from Evren’s Çorum speech of June 1, 1983, when he threatened to postpone elections. They were incensed by the fact that the Grand Turkey Party had dared to place a retired general, Ali Fethi Esener, among its leaders allegedly to bring two comrades of the same class — he and Sunalp — face to face and to divide the armed forces into camps. Evren described this act as treachery. [13] Seven former Republicans were also sent to Çanakkale as a warning against flouting the Council’s wishes, and also to establish the army’s “evenhandedness” vis-a-vis left and right!

Amid all the excitement, the three parties which would contest the election in November had also been formed. First was the right-wing Nationalist Democracy Party led by Turgut Sunalp. The use of the term “nationalist” and its association with the defunct neo-fascist MHP was not lost on most people; perhaps too much was made of it in the whisper campaign. The center-right Motherland Party was led by Turgut Özal, who had been in the government until July 1982 as deputy prime minister responsible for economic affairs. The Populist Party was led by Necdet Calp, a former bureaucrat who had been RPP leader Ismet Inönü’s private secretary in 1961 and later undersecretary at the prime minister’s office after September 12, 1980. He had retired on April 11, 1983, to enter politics. His party, which adopted the six principles of the old RPP — republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism and revolutionism — hoped to fill the vacuum on the left by attracting all those who had voted Republican. The question was: would anyone vote for a colorless leader and a party without identity if there was an alternative? The answer was extremely simple: The NSC would prevent an alternative from emerging by vetoing founding members of such parties; thus they would fail to reach the magic number of 30 in the allotted time, which ran out a 5 pm on August 24.

In the weeks that followed the closure of the Grand Turkey Party the problem remained the same: how to create new loyalist parties which would win the old votes. Sunalp’s NDP simply was not attracting a following, and was unable to fill the vacuum left by the Grand Turkey Party. Ulusu was again approached in June and offered the party’s leadership but declined. He reportedly argued that the party ought to be led by a civilian. [14] Business and industrial circles were also nervous about the lack of a clear alternative on the right. They were grateful to the NSC for restoring political stability, but they became alarmed at Turgut Özal’s economic policies. These had forced the economy to turn away from internal consumption to exports where competition was brutal. Industrialists were angered by Özal’s response to the press when the import substitution people complained of his policies and said they were going bankrupt. Özal said they should sell their villas and invest in production. Rightist populism of the Thatcherite variety may have had some impact on his popularity. As the leader of a party regime, Özal might prove impossible to control. Therefore they preferred an alternative to Özal and for a time there were even rumors that Mehmet Yazar, the president of the Union of Chambers, was trying to form a party to represent directly the interests of big capital.

While the press continued to announce the formation of new parties, not one of these survived the NSC vetoes to contest the election. The True Path Party took the place of the recently dissolved Grand Turkey party; SODEP emerged as the social democratic alternative to the Populist Party, though not under Inonu’s leadership, for he had been vetoed on June 23. The Welfare Party was formed to attract the Islamist votes, and the Conservative Party those of the old Nationalist Action Party. It is not clear what or whom the other parties represented. If the high command wanted a straight electoral contest between two parties they controlled, why did they not veto Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party? Nothing would have been easier. There are speculative but not definitive answers to this question. It is said that Özal’s popularity in the West, especially in Washington where he had World Bank and International Monetary Fund connections, saved him. His political elimination would have cast doubt on this entire process of “restoring democracy,” already viewed with suspicion in Europe. Others claim that Özal has the support of the moderates in the high command, and that they groomed and protected him. Even his resignation as the government’s “economic supremo” in July 1982 is said to have been engineered to bolster his reputation as an economic wizard by allowing the public to contrast him with his successor, Adnan Beşar Kafaoğlu. There is yet another explanation for why Özal’s party was permitted to survive: namely, that the high command simply did not take it as a serious challenge to their own NDP. After all, Özal was thought to have totally discredited himself because of his responsibility for the “bankers’ scandal,” in which thousands of middle- and lower-class families had lost their savings. It was thought that this incident could be used to undermine any challenge from Özal.

The first theory is plausible, but the second is difficult to sustain. Precisely during this period of vetoes, the hardliners had become stronger in the high command. Gen. Necdet Üruğ had already moved in November 1982 from Istanbul, where he had been Commander of the First Army responsible for martial law, to the center of power in Ankara, where he was appointed general secretary to the NSC. On July 1, 1983, President Evren resigned as chief of the general staff, handing over this post to Nurettin Ersin. Üruğ was appointed commander of the land forces, the position vacated by Ersin, and became next in line to head the general staff when Ersin left the army after the elections to become a member of the President’s Council. [15] The growing strength of the hardliners within the high command may be gauged from increased repression in the prisons — something not reported in the press because of self-censorship, but well known to journalists and lawyers. Particularly indicative was the attitude of the judges and the prosecutors in the Peace Association trial. It would have made good political sense for the regime to be lenient towards the members of the Association, all members of the Turkish ruling elite, including a former ambassador as well as artists and intellectuals. The climate within the country would have become less tense and the regime might have won some good will in a hostile Europe. These factors do not seem to have entered into the calculations of the hardliners. So perhaps Özal did survive the vetoes because he was not taken seriously. At the same time, pressure was applied to force his party to merge with the MDP, pressure Özal refused to succumb to.

The Briefest Campaign

Meanwhile, the position of Sunalp’s Nationalist Democracy Party was strengthened — or so it was hoped — by having Prime Minister Ulusu and four other cabinet members join the party as independents. [16] This gave it the image of an incumbent ruling party, often an advantage in elections. According to Mehmet Barlas, a journalist close to the ruling circles, Ulusu’s presence in the NDP was expected to facilitate the merger with Özal’s party, thereby creating a strong center-right. On the center-left, SODEP was expected to merge with the Populists and thereby produce a viable two-party system. [17] But these schemes were frustrated by Özal’s obstinacy and the vetoes against SODEP which prevented the party from contesting the elections in November.

After the NSC had decided which parties could enter the elections, these parties had to produce lists of candidates who were then scrutinized by the NSC to see if they were worthy of representing the nation. The completion of this process on October 16 marked the beginning of the official electoral campaign, which ended three weeks later on November 5. This was probably the briefest campaign in Turkey’s electoral history. Perhaps this was just as well, since there were hardly any issues which could have sustained a longer one. Those issues that could be publicly aired had been severely circumscribed by NSC directives. Nothing that the September 12 regime had done could be challenged; to some degree all three parties had promised to honor and continue these policies, to pursue what came to be described as the “September 12 philosophy.”

Even before the official campaign opened, Sunalp had stated the NDP policy as “the state first, then democracy, then its party.” He claimed that the country was passing through one of the most critical periods in its political history, and that treacherous conspiracies against Turkey’s unity had still not ceased. Since his party was the principal enemy of communism and possessed the most effective method of struggle as well as the power against these forces, it had become the object of their attacks. [18] Anti-communism became the main theme in Sunalp’s campaign, though after Özal emerged as a rival he attacked Özal as the man who destroyed the economy.

Sunalp was temperamentally unsuited to lead a political party in an election designed to restore civilian rule. He was the caricature of a soldier who could only talk down to people. He failed to establish rapport with the press, which would have flayed him alive for his blunders had it not feared the consequences from the martial law regime. It remains a puzzle why the high command did not choose some other officer more suited for a political role. Even when Sunalp talked about issues which concerned the electorate, for example about the economy or the reform of the bureaucracy, his words lacked conviction.

But Sunalp’s two rivals, Turgut Özal and Necdet Calp, were hardly better. That is why it would be difficult to argue that the 1983 election was won or lost on the basis of party programs or personalities. Özal agreed that communism was a threat to Turkey but claimed that it could be better crushed by economic means and not by repression alone. On economic matters he stood firmly behind a free-market economy with a minimum of restrictions, arguing that the country must export to survive. He did his best to project a liberal, anti-statist, anti-bureaucratic image, seemingly the best choice for anyone who wanted a quick return to civilian rule.

Calp, by contrast, was totally unknown to the public, having spent his life in the bureaucracy. His positions were those of the classic RPP of the pre-1960s, though he was forced to adopt a radical social democratic posture when his party was challenged by the more dynamic and authentic SODEP. Of the three leaders, he emerged as the most serious and sincere, someone who refused to gloss over the country’s problems or provide simple, ready-made answers.

“Still No Excitement in Erzurum”

Given political conditions, the campaign failed to arouse any popular interest. Only Özal was familiar to the voters. Whether this familiarity was an asset is difficult to say, because many people associated him with financial scandals and swindles. In Denizli, in western Anatolia, the people were said to be more involved with the fortunes of the local football team, Denizlispor, than with the election barely three weeks away. Journalists sent to cover the provinces kept reporting the same story: “There is still no excitement in Erzurum”; “Nevşehir still has not entered the election spirit.” [19] Women, who constitute more than half of Turkey’s voters, were conspicuous by their absence at political rallies. No one ventured to explain why. [20] The lack of general interest was said to be the work of the two defunct parties: RPP and JP. Their supporters, now rallying behind SODEP and the True Path Party, were asking the people not to attend meetings or vote. President Evren told a rally on October 15 that even those who say “‘I am a nationalist’ are, like the communists, saying don’t vote.” [21] But as the election results showed, only a fraction of the voters took this advice. There were other reasons for this dead campaign.

First of all, all three parties were artificial creations with faceless leaders. They lacked roots in the country and relied on local families to deliver the vote. This method worked in some backward provinces like Bitlis in eastern Anatolia, where feudal elements were still entrenched and where the patriarch of the Inan clan could predict, correctly as it turned out, that “the three candidates will be elected from the NDP, because Bitlis was one big family.” [22] Kamran Inan was representing the party there. But the same thing could not happen in Adana, a province which had undergone a major transformation over the past generation. In the 1950s, the hold of feudal elements had been broken and agriculture was mechanized, leading to great prosperity for the capitalist farmer. In the 1960s, the province industrialized and attracted migrant labor with the inevitable shantytowns. In electoral terms, these developments meant that Adana had voted Democrat in the 1950s and Justice Party in the 1960s. In the 1970s, people — including a working class — had been politicized and had voted for the social democratic RPP in 1973 and 1977. The city of Adana, which could challenge Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir in wealth and development, gave 52 percent of the ballot to Ecevit in 1977. Adana also elected Alparslan Türkeş, the leader of the NAP. [23] In 1983, beset by chronic unemployment and a deep crisis in the textile industry, Adana elected five (out of 12) Populist members of Parliament, despite the party’s limited propaganda. As Turk-Iş President Şevket Yilmaz noted, not one of the three parties was interested in the workers’ problems or their rights. [24] And yet these people understood how to vote to best further their interests, at least in the short run.

Another factor that cut the parties off from the voters, the Populists being a partial exception, was the law which ended treasury aid to the parties. Required now to find money on their own, the parties turned to the people who had it, namely businessmen and industrialists, and to a lesser extent professionals. The big holding companies or corporations like Koç and Sabanci tended to favor the NDP, the state party; they opposed Özal’s policy of rapidly changing the economy’s orientation away from import substitution, marking the end of protectionism. Describing the man as irresponsible, they wanted to keep him in check and moderate his policies. While they supported the NDP, some of their money also found its way to Motherland coffers. Özal relied for most of his funds on the new breed of businessmen and industrialist-contractors who had made their fortunes in exports, mainly to the Middle East. His party also attracted well-to-do younger technocrats and professionals who would have had to wait 10 to 15 years to enter politics under the old system. These two parties of the right generated so much money that they could afford to wage “American-style” campaigns — hiring public relations firms and advertising on radio and television and in the press. By November 1, the Motherland Party’s campaign had cost 250 million lira, about $1 million at the prevailing rate of exchange. The state in effect subsidized these campaigns by permitting a televised debate and then providing seven TV slots to each party.

The public opinion polls taken after these television appearances indicate that this exposure decided the fate of the parties on November 6. Özal came out ahead in each of the polls taken, and the NSC halted these surveys lest they adversely affect the voter! Such was the high command’s alarm at Sunalp’s poor showing that President Evren, who had been obliquely supporting the NDP for some time, now came out in the open for Sunalp and his party. On Friday, November 4, he went on television and radio to describe Turgut Özal as irresponsible and urge his audience to vote for an administration which would continue the policies of the National Security Council: “If you are happy with the activities of the National Security Council over these three years, I am convinced that you will bring to power an administration which will continue the Council’s policies and will not again push the country into confusion.” [25] That same evening, Prime Minister Ulusu made a party propaganda broadcast on behalf of the NDP, ending the fiction of the government’s neutrality. He reminded the people of the situation before September 12, 1980, and asked them to bear that in mind when they voted the next day. [26]

Elections and Martial Law

On Sunday, when Turkey went to the polls, the voters did not heed the advice of either President Evren or Prime Minister Ulusu, two men they generally respected. They were also deaf to the propaganda of those who called for spoiled ballots — these amounted toa mere 4.9 percent of the votes cast. Spoiled ballots in large numbers might have led to an NDP victory by default. The Turkish voters did not want a continuation of the September 12 regime by proxy, and that is what Sunalp promised. They all appreciated the end of terrorism, but they rejected the heavy hand of the state. Özal was able to exploit this anti-state feeling with great success, just as the Democrat Party had done in 1950.

Nevertheless, the extent of Sunalp’s defeat remains a surprise even for acute observers of Turkish politics, like Yalçin Dogan of Cumhuriyet. A week before the election it was generally agreed that Özal was in front and the polls confirmed this. But Dogan argued that these polls reflected urban opinion — about 40 percent of the population. People who were putting Özal in front, he wrote, were making the same mistake as those who thought that the referendum of 1982 would obtain only 65-70 percent of the vote. [27] A week later, both town and country supported Özal, virtually wiping out the NDP as a party of the right. This was explained as a personal success for Özal, who had run the entire campaign as a one-man show. He had projected a positive image of a politician who was also a man of action, capable of fulfilling promises. People who tried to detract from Özal’s victory claimed that he obtained large numbers of votes which would have belonged to the True Path Party, SODEP and the Welfare Party. The true test of Özal’s strength, according to this argument, would come in the local elections in late March 1984, when all parties would enter the election unhindered.

Perhaps even more surprising than the success of the Motherland Party was the success of the Populist Party. With 117 seats, it became the chief opposition, a result few would have dared to predict. The party enjoyed all the disadvantages one could image: a colorless leader, lack of party organization, very little money, and another party — SODEP — appealing to its social democratic base and carrying out propaganda against it. Despite these odds, over 30 percent of the electorate voted Populist, the one party which promised to satisfy their aspirations for social justice and democracy. Had SODEP been allowed to contest the elections, the social democratic vote might have risen by another 10 points or so, to the old RPP level of 40 percent.

At this point, what can one say about the Turkish election of 1983? Firstly, it was inconclusive. It had been fought under artificial conditions dictated by the high command, with the two major parties, SODEP and True Path, kept out. This fact made the local elections scheduled in March 1984 extremely important. These results would show the true strength of its various parties. The Ozal government’s decision to hold these elections as early as possible suggest that it fears the growing strength of the True Path Party.

Secondly, the election, or rather the process leading to the election, revealed that however much the military might alter the political structure, the basic fact remains that Turkey is now polarized between a social democratic left and a fragmented right. The big question in Turkish politics since the late 1960s has been how to unify the right. This great factor of instability still remains unresolved. Thirdly, the 1983 election should not be seen as the restoration of multi-party politics or democracy. The high command was quite clear about this, and said only that the elections would mark the beginning of a period of transition to democracy. Immediately after the election, martial law was renewed until April 1984, allegedly because of the continuing threat of terrorism. The generals reserve the right to intervene if they feel that the situation requires it. Despite the elections, they still remain the arbiters of politics in Turkey.


[1] Milliyet, November 9, 1982.
[2] Milliyet, November 18, 1982.
[3] Milliyet, November 19, 1982.
[4] Milliyet, November 24, 1982.
[5] See press reports of his Artvin speech, November 29, 1982.
[6] See Mehmet Barlas, an editorialist sympathetic to the regime, “Evren’i Anliyoruz” (We Understand Evren), Milliyet, March 15, 1983.
[7] For Evren’s Demizli and Uşak speeches, see Cumhuriyet, April 11, 1983.
[8] Cumhuriyet, April 14-15, 1983.
[9] Cumhuriyet, April 27, 1983.
[10] See Tesman Erol’s article in Milliyet, April 26, 1983.
[11] Cumhuriyet, April 30, 1983.
[12] Cumhuriyet, May 4, 1983.
[13] See press reports, June 1, 1983.
[14] Milliyet and Cumhuriyet, June 5, 1983.
[15] See press reports, July 1, 1983. The timing of these changes was unusual, because promotions in the high command of the Turkish Armed Forces are made on the occasion of Victory Day, August 30.
[16] Milliyet, August 16, 1983.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Cumhuriyet, August 14, 1983.
[19] Ibid., October 14, 16, 17, 1983.
[20] See Ilhami Soysal, “Kadinlar nerede?” (Where Are the Women?) Milliyet, October 19, 1983.
[21] Cumhuriyet, October 16, 1983.
[22] Milliyet, October 13, 1983.
[23] Hikmet Cetinkaya, Cumhuriyet, October 16, 1983.
[24] Milliyet, October 26 and 28, 1983.
[25] See press coverage, November 5, 1983.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Cumhuriyet, October 30, 1983.

How to cite this article:

Feroz Ahmad "The Turkish Elections of 1983," Middle East Report 122 (March/April 1984).

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