Political violence in Turkey (1976–1980)

Political violence in Turkey became a serious problem in the late 1970s[3] and was even described as a "low-level war".[4] The death squads of Turkish right-wing ultranationalist groups, sometimes allied with the state, against the resistance of the left-wing opposition inflicted some 5,000 casualties. Most of the victims were left-wingers. The level of violence lessened for a while after the 1980 Turkish coup d'état until the Kurdish-Turkish conflict erupted in 1984.

Political violence in Turkey (1968–1980)
Date1968–1980 (peak years 1976–1980)
Right-wing groups: Left-wing groups:
Commanders and leaders
Unknown Unknown
Casualties and losses
1,296[2] 2,109[2]
Total 5,388 killed, affiliation of 1,983 victims unknown.[2]


In 1975 Süleyman Demirel, president of the conservative Justice Party (Turkish: Adalet Partisi, AP) succeeded Bülent Ecevit, president of the social-democratic Republican People's Party (Turkish: Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) as Prime Minister. He formed a coalition, the Nationalist Front (Turkish: Milliyetçi Cephe), with Necmettin Erbakan's Islamist National Salvation Party (Turkish: Millî Selamet Partisi, MSP), and Alparslan Türkeş' far-right Nationalist Movement Party (Turkish: Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP). The MHP used the opportunity to infiltrate state security services, seriously worsening the low-intensity war that had been waging between rival factions.[4]

The elections of 1977 had no winner. Demirel at first continued the coalition with the Nationalist Front, but in 1978, Ecevit came to power again with the help of some deputies who had changed party. In 1979, Demirel once again became prime minister. At the end of the 1970s, Turkey was in an unstable situation with unsolved economic and social problems and facing large strike actions and partial paralysis of parliamentary politics (the Grand National Assembly of Turkey was unable to elect a president during the six months preceding the coup). Since 1969, proportional representation had made it difficult for one party to achieve a parliamentary majority. The interests of the industrial bourgeoisie, who were economically dominant, were opposed by other social classes, such as smaller industrialists, traders, rural notables and landlords, whose interests did not always coincide among themselves. Numerous agricultural and industrial reforms sought by parts of the upper-middle classes were blocked by others.[4] The politicians seemed unable to combat the growing violence in the country.

Sequence of eventsEdit

Unprecedented political violence erupted in Turkey in the late 1970s. The overall death toll of the 1970s is estimated at 5,000, with nearly ten assassinations per day.[4] Most were members of left-wing and right-wing political organizations, which were then engaged in bitter fighting. The ultranationalist Grey Wolves, the youth organisation of the MHP, claimed they were supporting the security forces.[5] According to the British Searchlight magazine, in 1978 there were 3,319 fascist attacks, in which 831 were killed and 3,121 wounded.[6] In the central trial against the left-wing organization Devrimci Yol (Revolutionary Path) at Ankara Military Court, the defendants listed 5,388 political killings before the military coup. Among the victims were 1,296 right-wingers and 2,109 left-wingers. The others could not clearly be related.[7] The 1978 Bahçelievler massacre, the 1977 Taksim Square massacre with 35 victims and the 1978 Maraş massacre with over 100 victims are some notable incidents. Martial law was announced following the Maraş massacre in 14 of the then 67 provinces in December 1978. At the time of the coup, martial law had been extended to 20 provinces.

Ecevit was warned about the coming coup in June 1979 by Nuri Gündeş of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Ecevit then told his interior minister, İrfan Özaydınlı, who then told Sedat Celasun, one of the five generals who would lead the coup. The deputy undersecretary of the MİT, Nihat Yıldız, was demoted to the London consulate and replaced by a lieutenant general as a result.[8]

Kurdish separatismEdit

The right-wing groups were opposed to Kurdish separatism. Disproportionate numbers of Kurds were part of the left-wing groups. Before the 1980 military coup, the majority of violent clashes were between leftist and rightist groups, though the separatist attacks against the Turkish forces increased afterwards.[9][10]

An amendment of the electoral law in 1969 kept small parties on both sides to gain any seats in Parliament. This caused a public uprising, including the Kurdish resistance. Multiple Kurdish leftist organisations appeared in Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s that were ready to use violence as a political tool. Violence sparked especially in the second half of the 1970s.[11][12] Throughout the years, a number of them fell apart or were banned altogether after the 1980 military coup.[11] After becoming increasingly involved in political activism after its foundation in 1978, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Öcalan would rise quickly to be one of the major separatist actors.[13] As a militant political organisation, the PKK claimed 354 lives between the years 1978 and 1980.[9] Most of the victims were ethnic Kurds as they constituted PKK's main target group. For example, tribal leaders were against the PKK's goals and values, which was why the PKK fought against them.[9][10]

The Kurdistan Worker's Party did not only use violence to mobilise people during this time period. However, their use of violence did appeal to larger crowds, increasing the popularity of the party.[10] By gaining more people to support them, other organisations were not able to gain similar status as the PKK did. Thus, the PKK was the main access of the Kurdish to political participation in Turkey. One way of involving a larger number of people in its activities was to include women, which challenged the traditional gender relations in the country.[12]


Following the ongoing political violence of the 1970s and the Turkish parliament's inability to form a stable government and fulfil its function as legislative, the 12 September Military Coup brought Kenan Evren to power. The parliament was abolished, martial law was declared and a state of emergency was put into place. The period of military dictatorship between 1980 and 1983 constituted a fundamentally transformational period for Turkish society.

The National Security Council became responsible for the close monitoring of society, aimed at those who participated in any form of state resistance in the 1970s. Estimated numbers of the people facing punishment by the state 1980-1983 are listed in the table below.

Custody 650,000
Prosecuted in martial courts 210,000
Imprisoned 80,000
Sentenced 65,000
Trialed under threat of capital punishment 6,353
Condemned to capital punishment > 500
Executed 50
Blacklisted > 300,000
Banned to travel abroad 388,00
Fired public officials 4,891
Deported 4,509
Forced retirement or resignation > 20,000
Cancelled Turkish citizenship 15,000

A culture of mutual denunciation was developed among the citizenry and the formation of organisations banned, leading to a nationwide atmosphere of social anxiety and polarization into two groups: those who were innocent and those who were guilty. In addition, nationalism was coupled with Islamization in order to formulate a new Turkish national identity and promote morality. The National Security council owned the public broadcasting channel, Turkish radio and the television institution. Both Islamization and the nationalization of important media channels acted as ways to further discipline the population.[14][15]

The military coup also allowed for a restructuring of the state; 535 laws were passed in the 1982 Turkish Constitution.[16] Among them were laws that enabled a shift from a state-controlled to a market economy with a developmentalist approach. However, with the 24th January Decisions, real wages dropped significantly and the establishment of small businesses was hampered, whereas the way was paved for larger corporations, new networks of exportation and multinational organisations. A development program for Southeastern Anatolia (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi) was established in order to help the dominantly Kurdish population to more economic prosperity but did not include anyone from the region to make the program cooperative and successful. Instead, reforms were designed to be much in favour of the bourgeoisie all while it worsened the situation of the middle class significantly with a plummeting of real wages.[14][17]

Among other reasons, Kurdish separatism was reinforcing the economic backwardness of the Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia while the economic backwardness of Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia reinforced Kurdish separatism. Terrorist attacks have had an impact on human and physical capital, and what the state spent on countering the movement shifted spendings from the infrastructure and development of the region to the defence. However, this simultaneously marginalised Kurdish who would then be recruited by the PKK as lower-class. Thus, economic backwardness and Kurdish separatism created a vicious circle.[18]

Regarding minority rights and freedoms, there were many setbacks. Exclusionary nationalism was promoted.[17] For the Kurdish, the acknowledgement of their existence and the use of their language were banned entirely. Any type of Kurdish media was forbidden, and publishers were imprisoned. Political parties, trade unions and NGOs were abolished.[14] The Turkish Armed Forces fought against PKK influence in Southeast Anatolia and at the Iraqi border and implemented a guard system in order to make villagers fight against the PKK with them.[19] For Alevis, Islamisation acted as an assimilationist state policy because it was Sunni Islam that was practiced. Many mosques were built in Alevi districts and the religious courses offered were all Sunni as well.[14] This marginalization would lead to the 1984 Kurdish-Turkish conflict and the rise of the PKK.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ https://ahvalnews.com/turkish-mafia/turkish-mafia-boss-lends-support-erdogan[bare URL]
  2. ^ a b c Devrimci Yol Savunması (Defense of the Revolutionary Path).
  3. ^ Zürcher, Erik J. (2004). Turkey A Modern History, Revised Edition. I.B.Tauris. p. 263. ISBN 978-1-85043-399-6.
  4. ^ a b c d Gil, Ata. "La Turquie à marche forcée", Le Monde diplomatique, February 1981.
  5. ^ Turkey. Amnesty International. 1988. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-86210-156-5.
  6. ^ Searchlight (magazine), No.47 (May 1979), pg. 6. Quoted by (Herman & Brodhead 1986, p. 50)
  7. ^ Devrimci Yol Savunması (Defense of the Revolutionary Path). Ankara, January 1989, p. 118-119.
  8. ^ Ünlü, Ferhat (17 July 2007). "Çalınan silahlar falcıya soruldu". Sabah (in Turkish). Archived from the original on 30 August 2008. Retrieved 18 December 2008.
  9. ^ a b c Sayari, Sabri (11 March 2010). "Political Violence and Terrorism in Turkey, 1976–80: A Retrospective Analysis". Terrorism and Political Violence. 22 (2): 198–215. doi:10.1080/09546550903574438. ISSN 0954-6553. S2CID 146738648.
  10. ^ a b c Gunes, Cengiz (1 September 2013). "Explaining the PKK's Mobilization of the Kurds in Turkey: Hegemony, Myth and Violence". Ethnopolitics. 12 (3): 247–267. doi:10.1080/17449057.2012.707422. ISSN 1744-9057. S2CID 144075596.
  11. ^ a b İnce, Başak (2012). Citizenship and identity in Turkey : from Atatürk's republic to the present day. London: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 978-0-85772-207-2. OCLC 846495381.
  12. ^ a b Tezcür, Güneş Murat (March 2015). "Violence and nationalist mobilization: the onset of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey". Nationalities Papers. 43 (2): 248–266. doi:10.1080/00905992.2014.970527. ISSN 0090-5992. S2CID 153983243.
  13. ^ Ciment, James (2014). Encyclopedia of conflicts since World War II. ISBN 978-1-78402-823-7. OCLC 889717953.
  14. ^ a b c d Cengiz, Fatih Çağatay (2020). Turkey : the pendulum between military rule and civilian authoritarianism. Leiden. ISBN 978-90-04-43556-8. OCLC 1182021473.
  15. ^ Orhon, Göze (2015). Weight of the Past : Memory and Turkey's 12 September Coup. Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4438-7988-0. OCLC 913091861.
  16. ^ Özbudun, Ergun (1976). Social change and political participation in Turkey. Harvard University. Center for International Affairs. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-07580-8. OCLC 2317902.
  17. ^ a b Arat, Yeşim (2019). Turkey between democracy and authoritarianism. Şevket Pamuk. Cambridge, United Kingdom. ISBN 978-0-521-19116-6. OCLC 1065839122.
  18. ^ Bilgel, Fırat; Karahasan, Burhan Can (2017). "The Economic Costs of Separatist Terrorism in Turkey". Journal of Conflict Resolution. 61 (2): 457–479. doi:10.1177/0022002715576572. hdl:2445/57832. ISSN 0022-0027. S2CID 14049116.
  19. ^ Kayhan Pusane, Özlem (3 September 2015). "Turkey's Military Victory over the PKK and Its Failure to End the PKK Insurgency". Middle Eastern Studies. 51 (5): 727–741. doi:10.1080/00263206.2014.979801. hdl:11729/701. ISSN 0026-3206. S2CID 220376879.