Over the past week, a political row over an animated cartoon shown to schoolchildren has become the second item on the Turkish news agenda after the coronavirus outbreak. The cartoon in question was aired on EBA TV (Education Informatics Network) during remote education programming that began after schools were closed down as a measure against the coronavirus epidemic. It depicts the 1961 execution of former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, the animation not being part of the curriculum but an ‘entertainment’ program during an interval between classes. 

With commentators expressing concern about children’s psychology after being exposed to graphic images of an execution, Minister of Education Ziya Selçuk was quick to announce that the controversial film was not part of the approved educational material. The minister, however, could not avoid fire from both the secularist and the pro-Islamist opinion leaders. 

Secularists, such as the Tele 1 commentator Can Ataklı, point out that in other intervals between classes religious hymns were broadcast and that the instructor was veiled. He and other critics have argued that the totality of these images shows that the government is attempting to abuse the necessity of distance teachingas an opportunity to brainwash children with religious and conservative political indoctrination. Pro-Islamists, on the other side, such as daily Akit’s Ali Karahasanoğlu, view the situation as a compromise by the Minister of Education under criticism from “atheists, military coup conspirators and headscarf haters”. The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) also joined the battle by issuing fines on Tele 1 for “inciting hatred among people” because Ataklı criticised the choice of a headscarved female teacher as the representative of the Turkey’s teachers.

Given the nature of the material that sparked the dispute, beneath the surface of the Islamist-secularist row, a cleavage of the collectiveperception of the May 27, 1960 military intervention becomes visible. The move was first of its kind in Republican history as the military overthrew an elected government, concluding the first episode of the Republic’s multi-party system venture. 

That episode opened with the Democrat Party (DP) being founded in 1946 when Turkey decided to side with the western bloc in the post-war international landscape. The party’s leadership and the members were from the ruling Republican Peoples Party (CHP) elite, but they adopted a program critical of decades-long CHP mono-party rule. Their main difference was in economic policy: the DP opposed the ongoing étatism in favour of private enterprise. They also had a more liberal program, which most significantly proposed a relaxation of the CHP’s rigid secularism. In the 1950 elections, DP won a landslide victory and came to power, ruling the country for the next decade.

In 1952, Turkey joined NATO and sent troops to fight in the Korean War. The strategic alliance with the United States was thus established, to be maintained to this day. The post-war Marshall Aid from the U.S. encouraged the DP government to initiate an economic development program through the promotion of private industrial and commercial enterprise and the mechanization of agriculture. The peasant communities’ life and the living standards of the province in general were tangibly improved under the DP rule both economically and culturally with more relaxed policies regarding the popular traditions. 

DP government lifted some of the prohibitions imposed on religious practices in the early republican era. The ban on the call to prayers in Arabic was abolished and religious instruction was introduced in schools. According to Prime Minister Menderes, by 1957, some 15,000 new mosques had been built around Turkey. By the late 1950s, the consequences of the restoration regarding the relations between the state and Islam were observable in the way in which the Muslim communities seemed to enjoy some influence on government controlled religious affairs.

The populist honeymoon with the repressed periphery however had certain limitations. By 1955, widespread support for the DP began to deteriorate due to the nation’s worsening economic situation. High inflation rates, shortage of essential goods and low income levels brought about the conditions of an economic crisis and the masses began to turn their face to the opposition. In response, the DP began to suppress their rival CHP and stifle the press.

Popular discontent with Menderes’ intolerance of criticism escalated, leading to anti-government mass demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara conducted mainly by the university students. The accumulation of unrest would eventually lead to the May 27, 1960 military coup initiated by a junta of “young officers”. The junta stayed in power for eighteen months during which time they initiated the trial of the entire DP leadership for breaching the constitution and treason. The death sentences of three top DP leaders, including Menderes, were decided through these trials. The party was officially closed down in September 1961 following the three executions.

This is the outline of the tragic historical events that once again have animated the country. The elected prime minister of the 1950s, Adnan Menderes, was executed after a military coup. Graphic description of his execution has been shown to schoolchildren on TV during an emergency, when coronavirus is threatening the public health. This move has been criticiced by the opposition as an opportunistic act, while the pro-government media defend it as good for the improvement of democratic consciousness among new generations.

The importance of this sixty year-old affair, why it was chosen to be presented to schoolchildren at a critical moment and how this presentation could still trigger a public debate can only be understood through reference to the narrative of the ruling AKP and its leader President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

From the outset, the AKP has positioned itself against the Kemalist military tutelage, which had first been affirmed through the 1960 intervention. In many of his addresses Erdoğan has identified himself with Menderes as a hero of democracy struggling against the republican military oligarchy. He views the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials of the 2000s as the liquidation of the military power. The July 15, 2016 coup attempt has an exceptional place in this narrative. It is, according to Erdoğan, the first time in republican history when a popular democratic movement prevented the military from acquiring power. 

From that perspective, in which the military is the main enemy of democracy, a regime where the military is suppressed and removed from positions of political power would automatically represent the most democratic government. This logic leads to the conclusion that the present regime is the most democratic regime because it stands against military intervention and therefore anyone who claims otherwise is a militarist coup conspirator. 

Looking back over sixty years of history, the psychology of this reasoning very much resembles that of Menderes right on the eve of his demise.