After decades of one-party rule in Turkey following the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, a transition towards multi-party rule took place after WWII. The first democratic election was held in 1950, as a result of demands for democracy within the country as well as US pressure on Kemalist forces for a transition to a multi-party regime. After promising an increased level of democracy during the election period, the Democrat Party (DP) took office under the leadership of Adnan Menderes, the new prime minister. Although most of its promises were not fulfilled during the 1950s, the DP dismantled a majority of the state institutions that had been used to transform society along the lines of top-down secularization, modernization and Turkification, and decreased pressure on conservative segments of society. Shortly before the 1954 elections, the DP began to implement various repressive measures against opposition groups, thus alienating the social, economic and political groups loyal to the previous Kemalist regime. As a result of the majoritarian election system in Turkey, the DP was able to retain power, largely with the support of rural populations that benefitted most from agricultural development projects and liberal economic policies. As political opposition increased, the DP enacted a series of laws that limited freedom of speech, implemented censorship of the press, and forced dissenting state officials to retire. Worsening economic conditions during the late 1950s coincided with increasingly undemocratic measures by the DP. In 1960, young officers in the Turkish Armed Forces carried out a military coup and outlawed the DP, with the tacit approval of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (RPP/CHP). At the initiative of Turkish Armed Forces, trials of leading DP cadres were begun on the island of Yassıada, a small island close to İstanbul in the Sea of Marmara. These ultimately turned into a campaign to disgrace DP leaders, especially Adnan Menderes. The court ultimately ordered the execution of top-ranking DP leaders for supposedly violating the constitution. Adnan Menderes was executed on September 16, 1961, along with two other DP ministers, Fatin Rüştü Zorlu and Hasan Polatkan. Menderes was then buried on Imrali Island, an isolated military zone closed to civilians, except for those visiting their relatives in Imrali prison.
Menderes’s execution did not decrease his popularity among DP supporters in the following decades. He has always been extremely popular among rural and conservative segments of society, and thus became a symbol of right-wing politics in Turkey, as well as a troublesome figure for Kemalists. The main reasons for erecting a mausoleum for Menderes in 1990 were to restore his honor and show respect for his political legacy. Moreover, to successor political parties in Turkey, he is also the most popular victim of the pro-Kemalist militarist regime. Thus the second purpose of the project is to emphasize unjust militarist practices targeting right-wing political parties. This memorialization project also fostered other initiatives to commemorate Adnan Menderes. Menderes’s mausoleum is on Vatan Street in Istanbul, one of the streets built and named during DP rule. In 1994, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the time the mayor of Istanbul, renamed the street Adnan Menderes Avenue to keep his memory alive. Moreover, a recent memorialization project on Menderes was announced by the Turkish government in July 2013. A “museum of democracy” will be constructed in Yassiada where trials were held in 1960.
The impact of this memorialization project is connected with the rise of right-wing political parties in Turkey. Right-wing catchall political parties have always relied on the symbolic value of Adnan Menderes, which has been an indirect way of protesting pro-Kemalist militarism. Since the currently governing Justice and Development Party has been promoting conservative values, trying to mobilize people against military interventions and openly defending the legacy of Menderes, the impact of this project has increased in recent years. Tens of thousands of people regularly visit the mausoleum each year to commemorate Menderes. Especially on the anniversary of his death, thousands of people attend the ceremony, along with state officials, to show their respect and love for Menderes. The fact that his mausoleum is not far from that of the other famous symbolic right-wing political figure in Turkey, Turgut Ozal, has increased the likelihood of visits to his mausoleum.
The main challenge to this memorialization project was Kemalist resistance, backed by the Turkish army and its civilian auxiliaries, since the project indirectly discredits a particular political tendency in Turkey. For example, a contractor who voluntarily constructed a graveyard for Menderes’s body on İmralı Island in 1961 was subjected to an investigation by the military. Without a law restoring Menderes’s honor, it was not possible to create such a memorial site, since in Turkey it is illegal to praise a criminal. Law No. 3623 was enacted by the Turkish parliament in April 1990 specifically for that purpose. A massive demonstration was then organized, attended by Turgut Ozal, the president of the Turkish Republic at the time, and the body of Menderes was transferred to the new mausoleum. His mausoleum was renovated in 2011 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, with additional lightening and a new architectural design.