Pluralism in Turkish Constitutional History, Mustafa Erdoğan

Pluralism in Turkish Constitutional History, Mustafa Erdoğan

In this study, pluralism will be used to mean a diversified society and a multi-party politics. I suppose that societal, institutional and ideological diversity of  the modern society is not only a fact but also as of value, and in a democracy a plurality of political, cultural and economic organizations that are rather autonomous has to be maintained. Pluralism is important in that it equips people with a considerable range of choices that helps them to express themselves in both economics and philosophy.

The issue of pluralism in modern Turkey is highly controversial. However, a careful examination of the history of modern Turkey would show that pluralism was not far from Turkish polity, though being discontinuous. In this study I aim to do this by tracing pluralist ideas and practices throughout modern history of Turkish polity. 

Many scholars and political observers hold that a search for constitutional democracy in Turkey started with introducing Republican regime in early 1920’s. However, Turkey had an experience of constitutional government and pluralism before the establishment of the republic. In fact, a tradition of associational and political pluralism, though not well-established,  can be traced to the late nineteenth century. This emerged from the Ottoman state's efforts to modernize its sociopolitical system in the post-Tanzimat (Reorganization) period. The imperial decrees known as the 1839 Gulhane Hatt-ı Humayunu (the Royal Edict of Gulhane) and the 1856 Islahat Fermanı (the Reform Edict) issued by the Sultan in order to reorganize the state and introduce a concept of rights in lines with, roughly, Western understanding. The first constitutional monarchy came after these measures, when Abdulhamit II put a semi-parliamentarian, monarchical constitution into force in 1876. Although the Sultan soon abrogated the constitution in 1878, the Young Turks forced him to put the constitution into effect again in 1908, and in the following years the constitution was amended to conform to that of a Western-style parliamentary monarchy. 

Despite official pressures between 1878-1908 civil and political associations could rise and survive. In particular, the1908 “Revolution”, which had been called popularly as “proclamation of freedom”, paved the way to emerging a lively associational life in the years of 1908-1913. Immediately after the "proclamation of freedom" the number and activities of political, ethnic, cultural and literary associations began to increase rapidly. In this period many associations and parties involved in public debate and political process. Authors who emphasize the lack of civil society in the ottoman Empire generally failed to consider this point. 

Yet, a 1913 military conspiracy stopped the working of relatively democratic political process and attempted to oppress all opposition movements, whether Islamist, liberal, socialist, or ethnic civil groups. The First World War followed the capturing of late Ottoman polity by the Unionists, and the parliamentary process was interrupted until the end of 1919, when general elections for a House of Representatives (Meclis-i Mebusan) was held. However, soon after the new Ottoman assembly began to operate, it had to end its work (April 1920) under pressure from the British forces occupying Istanbul. Subsequently, the Sultan dissolved it officially. However, to compensate the lack of a national democratic forum, a new parliament was formed under the name of the Grand National Assembly (GNA) in Ankara on April 23, 1920.  The GNA insisted on claiming exclusive authority over the "affairs of the nation", and, as a matter of fact, it showed much care about keeping democratic legitimacy, even though there existed an emergency situation because of the independence war. The era of GNA, 1920-1923, has witnessed a again a diversified political spectrum both in the parliament and outside it.   

But, shortly after the liberating Turkey from occupying forces, the way of doing things in politics began to change, and democratic concern for legitimacy and pluralism gradually was replaced by more autocratic methods. In 1925 the Republican Progressive Party, which alleged that Kemal was monopolizing political power and establishing an autocratic government, was banned by the government thrre months after its foundation and its leading figures were sentenced to life in prison following a court martial. The second opposition party, Free Republican Party, which was formed by a longtime, close friend of M. Kemal, Ali Fethi, dissolved itself because of official pressures in 1930. In time, the process of monopolization of the polity by M. Kemal and his ruling RPP was supplemented by invading the civil society. The 1925 Kurdish uprising provided the ruling party with an excuse to suppress all the autonomous formations within the society, especially religious ones. Indeed, after 1925 the Republican state gradually became an RPP apparatus to change radically the social and cultural fabric of the Turkish society in accordance with the RPP's blue-print for a secular-nationalist society and to create a new man, or, to coin a term, homo Kemalicus. The government established a network of People’s Houses that were supposed to have an official mission of indoctrinating society along secularist-nationalist lines. This implied an anti-pluralist stance on the part of the ruling party. 

With the oppression of civil society, the authoritarian one-party government lasted until 1945, when the ending of Second World War started "the second wave of democracy" throughout the world and, in turn, created a favorable foreign milieu for Turkey to transform its system into a multiparty government. The ruling RPP, led by Ismet Inonu as president, decided to open up the political system in order to get popular support for its domestic program and foreign support fom the Western world, especially from the United States. Thus, the RPP allowed the social and political opposition to form parties and the Democrat Party (DP) was established by some former RPP members, who had criticized policies of the government.

In the first free elections held in May 1950, the Democrat Party came to power, gaining a majority of seats in the parliament. Although DP governments followed relatively liberal policies in terms of economic and religious liberties and improved the general welfare of the population, its general record was far from the full liberalization and democratization. Coup d’etat of May 27, 1960 that was led by a group of army officiers and backed by civil and military elite holding the same outlook as RPP ended the first multy-party era of the Republic. 

The new 1961 constitution appeared to be a liberal one, with guaranties for civil and political liberties and a strengthened judicial review. In some respects, however, it provided Kemalist state elite with the means of controlling over the elected majorities of conservative parties. In checking conservative majorities, the state ideology, Kemalism, was also a useful tool for the state elite, being a source of legitimacy to control over the system.

However, Turkey under 1961 constitution have witnessed a relatively pluralist era both in politics and in civil society. Many political parties of different outlooks have contributed to public debate and civil organizations, representing different interests and ideologies, have had their voice in civil and public realms. Between 1961-1980 Islam had also began to gain visibility, not only in societal and cultural spheres, but also in the political realm. Yet pro-Islamic parties and associations were not tolerated much and were often accused of “capitalizing of religion” for political ends, societal or communal influence, or economic gains. 

This new semi-liberal era again ended by military intervention in 1980. The top generals  pronounced as one leading excuse for their intervention that the state again was endangered by "the escalation of reactionary activities" and "rising threat to secularism". Following the military intervention, the generals devised a "constitution", which came into effect in November 1982. The main preoccupation of the framers of the 1982 Constitution was to consolidate the secularist-Kemalist characteristic of the regime and to narrow the space for political competition and civil society. The constitution also strictly tightened the room for the social and political expression of religiously-inspired civic organizations. However, in some respects the coup leaders favored Islamic belief, with the hope of taking advantage of its “passifying” potentials and creating a more homogenous and less “political-Islamic” society.

The 1980’s were also the years of Turgut Ozal, first as primeminister and later as president. Although Ozal's liberalism in terms of economic policies did not reflect in politics in same degree, his concept of state was considerably liberal in terms of the goals of state and the relationship between individual and state. During his presidency, Ozal overtly challenged some Kemalist ideas and introduced new issues to the public debate—issues that up to his time had been considered forbidden subjects to raise in publicly. For example, he questioned the appropriateness of the state having an ideology, of the military controlling the policy of nation and of the Kurdish policy followed by previous governments. His political stanec in these issues contributed to the development of civil-societal activities, including Islamic ones, in post-1984 years. 

Yet, shortly after Ozal's death in 1993, the political atmosphere started to change and the military gradually reassumed the initiative in government policies. Thus, a policy of oppression concerning civil liberties, especially free debate and freedom of association, has increased. In this milieu, the members and the elected parliamentary deputies of the pro-Kurdish party were prosecuted. The so-called “Process of the February, 28, 1997” that was introduced by the militarty-dominated National Security Council and aimed to remove the pro-Islamic Welfare Party from the coalition government. At last, the NSC forced government parties to resign in June 1997 and the Constitutional Court disbanded the Welfare Part in January 1998. 

Military intervention of February, 28th, aimed at restoring the authoritarianism of one-party era and resulted in, mainly, cleansing the Islamic formations from civil society. However, with the “conservative-democrat” Justice and Development Party’s coming to power in 2002, the picture of Turkish politics has began to change. They took the case for full membership to the EU seriously and accelerated reform process. In practice this implied more democratization and liberty for the overall society. Thus new venues were opened to all sectors of society to have their voices in economy, culture and politics. This process has still been underway, but by 2007 the fate of constitutional democracy and pluralism is not certain due to the military influence.

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