Turkey Votes: May 14, 1950

Nick Danforth
5 min readMay 19, 2019
Ulus, May 14, 1950

On the morning of May 14, 1950, with rain falling across much of the country, millions of Turkish citizens went to vote in what they did not yet know would be the country’s first free election.

Newspaper reports conveyed both the novelty and solemnity of the occasion. In Kayseri, at the City Club, a heartfelt handshake between government and opposition candidates left fellow diners in tears. In Eskisehir, men and women, some in full veils, formed separate lines and alternated voting. In Balikesir, members of the governing party provoked involuntary laughter when they complained of intimidation from the opposition. Even voters who remembered the “fevered elections” of the late Ottoman period were “awed” by their experience at the polls. One opposition reporter in Ankara spotted the Speaker of Parliament waiting to vote. As he was about to say “I bet this this the first time you ever stood in line” a citizen, waiting impatiently behind the Speaker, told him to hurry up. Later, as the sun went down, the Democratic Party distributed food to ballot box observers, as well as candles in case the electricity went out. The “election marathon” continued throughout the night, with eager listeners staying up next to their radios and bringing news to impatient neighbors.

By the next morning, it was becoming clear that the Democratic Party had won by a substantial margin and would form the country’s new government. In the following days, Turkish papers sought to articulate the historic meaning of what had just happened. “After this great war, Turkey has taken its place among the Western democratic states,” a writer for Cumhuriyet declared. “Among the Eastern nations,” added another, “it was perhaps the first show this maturity.” Credit belonged to the Turkish nation itself. In the words of one columnist: “Our nation, which throughout history founded strong states and mighty empires, which remained unbowed by the fierce blows of fate, has embraced the advanced methods of contemporary civilization and taken charge of our government with our own hands.” Indeed, cast in these grand terms, it was a “happy coincidence” that Turkey’s “Democracy Holiday” had fallen on the same month as two other equally fortunate events: Fatih’s conquest of Istanbul on May 29thand Ataturk’s journey to Anatolia to launch Turkey’s War of Independence on May 19th.

On the eve of the election, the semi-official paper of the Democratic Party predicted the nation would carry out its “national responsibility” in a manner “befitting a civilized society” that could serve as an “example to other nations.” Now, after the election, Zafer noted proudly that participation rates exceeded those in many Western countries, and at many polling stations women exceeded men. Amidst scattered accusations that the Democratic Party represented a departure from Ataturk’s principles, the paper proclaimed that with the elections “national sovereignty perfected the principles and institutions established by Ataturk.” What’s more “with our final democracy revolution, the Turkish nation has proven itself qualified to achieve all of Ataturk’s revolutionary expectations.” Drawing out the continuity more explicitly, one columnist observed: “May 19thwas the start of our war of independence. Since that date, we built a free homeland and independent country. But with May 14 we now feel we live as free citizens with independent consciences upon this free and independent land.” More pointedly, another noted that, among its most significant mistakes, the Republican People’s Party had “appropriated the revolutionary achievements that belong to the nation as a whole” and “exploited them for partisan purposes.”

Meanwhile, the newspaper Ulus captured the sentiments of the Republican People’s Party, which tried to put the best historic spin on its defeat. The CHP had given Turkey’s citizens “the world’s greatest election laws” which allowed for the birth and victory of the opposition. For its part, the Democratic Party had emerged from within the CHP’s ranks and largely “copied” its policies. With the Democrats accusing Inonu of being a dictator, an Ulus editorial argued the election results definitively proved otherwise. Turkey “was not a dictatorship and had not been.” To the contrary, “Ataturk laid the foundation for this democratic revolution. He raised the statute. Ismet Inonu gave life to the statue.” The world had “never encountered a statesmen of Inonu’s stature who encouraged the wishes of the nation and gave up power in deference to them.” “That this lofty gesture had been engraved into the history of civilization by a Turkish leader was an honor to the nation.” Moreover, Ulus writers believed that the setback, while embarrassing, would likely prove temporary. Editor Huseyin Cahit Yalcin approvingly quoted a Turkish villager who, when asked about the possibility he wouldn’t like the new government, explained “after throwing out a government that’s been planted in power for 25 years, we’ll throw out the new one whenever we like.”

Turkish papers eagerly reprinted foreign coverage of the elections as well. American, French and British praise received the most interest, but positive responses from countries such as Greece, Brazil and Russia made an appearance as well. From Paris, Le Monde declared that above all, the significance of the moment lay in the “appearance of political will in a nation that had at no point ever been invited to seriously proclaim its views.” Another French paper concluded that “if the simple Turkish peasant has found his self-respect, we must conclude that this noble nation realized a four century achievement in four years.” For their part, British papers were eager to give both Ataturk and the Turkish people their due. Th elections were “Ataturk’s greatest victory” wrote the Daily Mail. “He appreciated what the Turkish nation needed to learn before they were thrown into Western style democracy and he taught it to them himself.” Under the headline “In a country used to earthquakes, an election landslide!” the Glasgow Herald noted that while “[d]ictatorship in Turkey was never of the worst sort…. these elections proved that modern people won’t support dictatorship of any sort.”

Finally, American observers were no less sweeping in their assessments of the election. The New York Times declared it the “first transfer of power in accordance with the freely stated popular will in six centuries of Turkish history.” On May 15th, the paper of record confidently reported: “The astonishing upset in the Turkish elections… is a result of which not only Turkey but Western democracy can be proud… That ancient country, once known as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ looks today like a vigorous young recruit to the sort of world we believe in and want to see….” With similar optimism, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department announced that the elections were a sign of democracy’s healthy development in the Near East.