Leader of Turkey’s military coup of 1980 and president of the country for seven years
Kenan Evren in his presidential office in 1982. Last year he was given a life sentence for crimes against the state and stripped of his ranks, honours and medals
In June last year, a Turkish court in Ankara wrote a final humiliating postscript to the career of the former president Kenan Evren, who has died aged 97. Evren, permanently hospitalised after the removal of his large intestine five years earlier, received a life sentence for crimes against the state, along with the sole surviving member of the junta he had once headed.
Unable to attend court in person, the former general received news of the judgment via closed-circuit television. He was stripped of all his ranks, medals, and honours. It is not clear how much impact these rulings had. According to his relatives, Evren was no longer able to understand the proceedings.
For many Turks, particularly on the left, the condemnation of Evren in a now mainly Islamist Turkey helped bring closure to painful wounds suffered in 1980 at the hands of military coup-makers, who threw out an elected but feeble civilian government and ruled the country directly for more than two years.
However, the judgment ignored the fact that during its short period in power, Evren’s regime had restored law and order to a country where at the time of the coup about two dozen people a day were being killed in political clashes. It also set the stricken and paralysed Turkish economy of 1980 on the road not just back to stability, but also to a vastly more prosperous era, the largely inadvertent outcome of Evren’s style of government.
He was born in the western Anatolian town of Alaşehir. His father was an imam, but Evren was educated in military schools as an army officer and grew up as a secularist. His family background gave him a less unfriendly view of the religious establishment than most Kemalist bureaucrats. His early career, which included a spell in Korea in the second half of the 1950s, was successful but not notable until August 1977 when the then prime minister, Süleyman Demirel, promoted him to be chief of general staff over the head of a more liberal general. It was a fateful decision. Three years later Evren would lead a military coup which deposed Demirel and sent him, along with senior ministers and opposition colleagues, into detention.
Evren was more the figurehead than the architect of the coup. Bluff, cheerful, and surprisingly considerate of others, he lacked intellectual forcefulness at a time when Turkey’s future hung in the balance and the military were expected to decide the outcome. Bitter polarisation between right and leftwing parliamentarians had spilled over into street violence between revolutionary Marxists and ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves”. The daily death toll grew steadily and even the imposition of martial law in Turkey’s major cities failed to restore order.
The military dragged their feet in backing the civilian government, allowed the situation to ripen to ensure support for a coup and put out feelers to the US and Britain about their intentions. In the summer of 1980, parliament was unable to agree on the election of the head of state, impeached the foreign minister and left a minority government in office which was powerless.
On 12 September, Evren and his colleagues moved and declared him head of state with a junta of top generals exercising legislative power. Order was restored within a few weeks. The price was high – and became more severe in the second year of the junta as its composition changed. The generals hanged 35 militants (one of them a boy of 17) and placed many thousands of others, particularly journalists and academics, on trial in martial-law courts. Torture was ubiquitous. A long-standing personal foe of the Grey Wolf leader, Alparslan Türkeş, Evren jailed ultra-nationalists as well as leftists.
Two years of redesigning Turkey’s institutions followed, intended to reshape the country’s political system along semi-authoritarian but outwardly democratic lines. The new system was intended to proscribe all political activity outside the narrow limits the generals regarded as permissible. Evren also revived Islamic religious education in schools, believing it would curb the growth of the left, and made it compulsory.
He and his colleagues intended that a pro-army conservative party should run the country. A dubious referendum in June 1982 endorsed a new constitution, followed 17 months later by a general election in which only three approved parties competed. Evren had formally become president in the June 1982 referendum and watched helplessly as Turgut Özal, whom he disliked, won the general election in November 1983 and set Turkey on the path to greater political and economic freedom.
Evren himself served out a seven-year term as a figurehead president without fuss before retiring to a life of painting by the seaside at Bodrum, making only very occasional (and usually poorly judged) public remarks.
Evren’s wife, Sekine, died in 1982. He is survived by three daughters.
- Kenan Evren, military officer and statesman, born 17 July 1917; died 9 May 2015