The Basic Sociological Conflict of Turkey’s Political Regime
The history of Turkey has been one of a deep-seated struggle over sovereignty between the people and the state institutions. The Republic’s founding principle, “sovereignty unconditionally belongs to the Nation” cloaked the truth that sovereignty belonged to the state with all its institutions, which had a monolithic vision towards what constituted and what should constitute the ‘Nation’.
In the making of a “modern” Turkey, the founding elite denied the sociological fabric of Turkey – the main elements of which being the religious segments of society and the Kurds – and inspired their successors to go so far as to obliterate their demands through various means of oppression. The agenda at the time was to create and empower what would today be referred to as “white Turks”— a brand of elite that would eventually serve as the support base of the militantly secular and nationalist new order.
As strategized, the new elite would become the bureaucratic oligarchs of the modern Turkey during the one-party era and consolidate state institutions in line with the founding Kemalist ideology. In efforts to mold the ideal Turkish citizen, the bureaucratic oligarchs waged war against any expression of religious identity and ethnic diversity using the state instruments under their command. The new class of elites also left a negative imprint on the economy, which would last for decades on end. The heads of state selectively granted white Turk entrepreneurs market advantage so that they built the muscles to sustain the established order. The protectionist economic regime entailed lack of incentives for innovation and development.
In the realm of politics, state institutions kept reigning over the people until 1950, when the then newly-established Democrat Party, led by Adnan Menderes, swept the political scene and put an end to Turkey’s one-party era. The party slogan, “Enough! The verdict belongs to the nation,” and its hold on popular sentiment signalled an unprecedented era whereby the people, for the first time, would come to have the upper hand over the ideologically loaded state institutions. Expectedly, the budding cracks in the established order were not well received by the bureaucratic oligarchy; Turkey’s short-lived experience with democracy came to an end with a coup d’état in 1960. With that, the first popular stride towards democracy failed to come into full fruition.
This bitter experience taught important lessons to successive governments. First and foremost, politics in Turkey had a two-tiered nature. The upper tier of hard politics belonged to state institutions including the military, while the lower tier of economic policies belonged to political parties. As the ensuing series of coup d’états later showed, any transgression of these lines would come at a high price— the true representatives of the people had manoeuvering space as far as it stayed within the confines of economic policies.
With three coups in three decades, Turkey followed a cyclical pattern whereby the very alternation between electoral democracy and authoritarian rule became the political system itself. Whenever the will of the people diffused into the upper tier of hard politics, the military seized power. This cyclical pattern came to a halt with the general elections in 1983, when Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP) won by a landslide. The years under Özal rule saw profound changes to the structure of the economy and inevitably, the society. The turn to neo-liberalism entailed a radical break from the past during which white Turk entrepreneurs thrived under a protectionist regime. With Özal, an unprecedented influx of investment for infrastructure in the impoverished inner Anatolian provinces began, laying the groundwork for the rise of what would today be referred to as “Anatolian tigers”. Spearheading a wider sociological transformation, this rising class of Anatolian entrepreneurs began competing with white Turk entrepreneurs not only in matters of production and trade, but in all spheres of life. Those who were perceived as the “peasants” of yesterday were now promising business owners, becoming increasingly visible in urban life.
Evidently, the mass transformation from peasantry to middle-class during mid-1980s brought with it the rise of a number of dispersed power centers across Anatolian provinces. This upset the monopoly of the white Turks over economic and political spheres, inciting tension between the new middle-class and the guardians of the established political order. It was propagated at the time that this social tension was a natural and unavoidable result of the economic transformation. The bigger picture, however, showed that the tension was a contemporary extension of the conflict over sovereignty between the institutions and the people.
It is the rise and consolidation of the middle-class that explains AK Party’s success today— election after election Anatolian provinces have proven to be the stronghold of the party. The middle-class drive to play active role in public-political life was the most pressing factor in the party’s dismantling of the tutelage regime. Over the past thirteen years, AK Party has contended various tutelary forms through a series of democratic reforms. As a movement that has its roots in the people and their needs, it has spearheaded the popular struggle against the rule of state institutions.
As a result, in the struggle against the tutelage regime, the AK Party goes as far as its constituency is economically and socially empowered. The concrete example to demonstrate the validity of this statement is— although the party had enough seats to change the constitution when it came to power in 2002, it refrained from doing so. In 2007, when the army issued a memorandum to Erdoğan and the judiciary attempted to obstruct the elections, Erdoğan stepped up to the challenge. Because in a matter of only five years, the party’s social base had become empowered and began to stand up for democracy— the rapid socioeconomic transformation of the middle class was what allowed Erdoğan to make a breakthrough and execute the struggle against the tutelage regime unlike his predecessors.
In spearheading the contemporary struggle against the state institutions, AK Party movement has also contested the dominant state discourse. The once “taboo issues” in Turkey are no longer under the monopoly of the state, and are now openly discussed in the realm of civilian politics. While the very existence of the Kurds used to be denied, today the 70% of the population endorse the peace and reconciliation process. What is achieved is indeed a paradigm shift, resulting from the long-drawn conflict between the state institutions and the popular struggle for sovereignty.
From a realistic perspective, the peace and reconciliation process has become a prerequisite for the success and sustainability of any government in Turkey. Today, the AK Party government is often criticized for the lack of transparency in the process and some uncertainties with regard to its future. Close observers of peace processes, however, would be aware that these are unavoidable side effects as the stakes of power-sharing arrangements are, by definition, high. Despite significant setbacks and momentary changes in the discourses of both parties, it must be admitted that the process has reached a point where there is no turning back.
Today, AK Party faces new challenges. The Gülen movement, active for nearly forty years, has over the past decade penetrated major state institutions including the judiciary, the police force, and the National Intelligence Agency. When its unpenatrable opponent, the military, left the scene, Gülen saw a window of opportunity whereby the movement could come to claim absolute authority over state institutions. With this, AK Party came to the realization that the long-drawn struggle over sovereignty between the people and the state institutions was taking a new shape. A religiously motivated movement, with leadership cult yet little public legitimacy, was not only challenging but threatening the rule of the people. From the wider framework of the deep-rooted conflict from which its social base suffered, AK Party recognized that Gülen movement’s infiltration of state institutions would in principle be no different from that of the founding elite, the white Turks— both came at the expense of people’s sovereignty. This was a breaking point that spelled the end of the party’s alliance with the Gülen movement.
From the broader historical perspective, arguments appealing to freedom of expression regarding the eviction of the Gülenists from state institutions are not well founded. The criteria of the European Union fail to capture the historical baggage that has shaped politics and society to this day, and do not always provide the best toolbox to evaluate the state of affairs in Turkey. What is happening in Turkey today must be read as the current reverberations of the conflict between the sovereignty of the state institutions and that of the people.
As the exploiters of the state institutions presided over the people for decades – sometimes manifestly, sometimes covertly – the people came to develop a type of political consciousness that resurfaced in every election. The result of the popular referendum of 1982 and that of the general elections in 1983 are telling in understanding the emerging pattern of voting behavior that favored the sovereignty of the people. The constitution drafted by the military junta in the early 1980s had provisions that safeguarded the continuity of the tutelage regime. It was ratified by 92% by popular referendum. However, the following year, Özal’s Motherland Party, to which the military was openly against, won parliamentary majority. Thanks to difficult lessons drawn from three military coups, the people had developed the political consciousness to know that if the constitution were not ratified, the military would strike back to consolidate its power through more drastic measures, and sovereignty would again be exercised by the state institutions even more radically.
A more contemporary example is the December 17 operation and the March 2014 local elections in its aftermath. It is no news, for example, that the victory of AK Party by 44% took European observers by great surprise. Contrary to their predictions, according to which the Party would lose a substantial amount of its votes due to corruption allegations, AK Party proceeded to win an additional six points on top of what it won at the previous election cycle. This victory unveiled two facts— first, the Gülen movement had no public legitimacy. The ballot box proved that the movement derives its power not from the people, but from its grasp on state institutions. Second, the people could attest to the dangers of a new type of tutelage that seemed to be emerging, and wanted to stand up for AK Party in the fight against the Gülen movement. These come across baffling to European observers, as they are not aware of the sheer intensity of the fight between the AK Party movement and the Gülen movement, as well as the people’s acquired political consciousness to take a solid stance through the ballot box against the exploiters of the state institutions. Today, the fight between AK Party and the Gülen movement still prevails, particularly in the realms of judiciary and the police, where the organization’s presence is strong.
With the baggage of all these experiences, Turkey is now ready to make its leap from representative democracy to participatory democracy. A new, genuinely democratic constitution laying the legal groundwork for the decentralization of governance, the establishment of presidential system, and the constituency-based election system, must be drafted and ratified by the people for the ultimate stride toward participatory democracy.