Short History of Turkish Politics

With Ekrem İmamoğlu’s win following the highly politicised mayoral elections in Istanbul, the capital of Turkey and where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had long held, the defeat explains a new beginning in Turkish politics. İmamoğlu and the win of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) undermined the legacy of Erdoğan’ seventeen years of power. Despite clear corruption by Erdoğan’ party members, at the onset of his defeat blasted rhetoric that blamed organised crime for his loss in Istanbul and demanded a re-election, only to lose a second time by an even bigger margin. In similar vein to Nicolae Ceaușescu who for a number of years held power in Romania only to appear a crazy old man prior to his death by execution, this defeat is indicative of a new political dynamic that offers an alternative that neutralises Erdoğan’ once convincing power.

The AKP emerged as a saviour during a difficult economic and social time in Turkey, encouraging the prospect that they can embrace both Islam and Democracy under the banner of human rights and freedoms and effectively implement reforms to complete the Copenhagen criteria toward EU accession. These reforms included legislative changes through amendments of the constitution underlined by the strengthening of an independent judiciary and the advancement of freedoms and cultural rights. As said by Erdogan himself, “one of the greatest common denominators of mankind’s existence on earth is the development of humanistic values over centuries. Universal values that are embodied in the concept of democracy and supported by principles such as human rights, rule of law, good governance are the product of the collected wisdom derived from different civilisations.”[1]

Such discourse on responsibility and gaining prominence by acting as an example in a complex global environment has consistently been reiterated by the AKP and while constitutional reforms along with a number of ratified international conventions have since taken place, the current social and political dynamics prove such discourses to have been nothing but mere flatteries without weight to the mechanisms that strengthen the principles of human rights. The almost schizophrenic movement between an uncompromising, conservative paternalism with the conservative-moderate political model appears to be a type of Newtons Cradle between a want for EU accession and an opportunity to strengthen a neo-Ottoman agenda. The AKP has either way attempted to strengthen legitimacy by showcasing popular domestic support and representing themselves as significant actors of democracy and human rights, an image recently proven by social media to be fictitious. While it is evident that media representation of the party is one-sided with Turkey becoming notorious for arresting journalists and restricting the independence of journalism and the media in its entirety, social media has become an expressive platform to expose the discontent displayed by the population.

Historically, Turkey was born out of the ashes of a failing Ottoman Empire, the late nineteenth century initiated the beginnings of Turkish nationalism through Jöntürkler or the Young Turks, when the underlying complexity between “a territorial, an ethnic or a religious basis for the ‘nation’”[2] promoted discourse on political identity and what it meant to be ‘Turkish’. It was not long afterwards that the proclamation of the Turkish Republic headed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was established following intense international and domestic upheaval including the First World War, the Balkan Wars and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, together with domestic strife such as the Sheik Said rebellion in the Eastern provinces. While the efforts and overall establishment of the Turkish parliament can be considered a success, the contradictory nationalist ideas particularly between Islamism and Turkism along with violence against ethnic and religious minorities proved the application of this new Turkish identity was initiated through an aggressive state nationalism in an attempt to submerge resistance.

As such, intense cultural and social transformations were implemented to change the structural dynamic of the new country from the old culture, the first being the abolishment of the caliphate that had been the primary system of governance in the region for centuries. Other instituted policies included the control of the appointments of imams, the abolishment of religious courts and schools, and other laws such as enacting the prohibition of any religious interference within the Grand National Assembly and Turkish politics.[3] While such political and cultural reforms no doubt had an impact on the calculated efforts to transform civic society and culture by strengthening loyalty to the new Turkish nationalism, the schism between secularists and Islamists proved the acceptance of the new ideology was indeed a complicated endeavour.

The one-party system changed in the late 1940’s toward a multi-party system and this process of democratisation exposed the broader Islamic sensibilities and cultural norms of the citizens. Consolidating the transformation toward democracy also allowed the country’s marginalised an avenue for political participation and thus this new opportunity never previously afforded to a public desirous to engage in a politics of identity became the basis of confrontational movements as part of this transformative process. Consequently, particularly during the late 1970’s, Turkey experienced serious social and political upheaval between what became known as the ‘leftists’ with the ‘rightists’.[4]

With the propagation of Islamic nationalism by identifying Turkish nationalism with Pan-Turkic identity, an ultranationalist right-wing ideology founded by political leader Alparslan Turkeş and strengthened by the youth-wing (the terror organisation Grey Wolves), the determination to fight against what it saw as the growth of left-wing humanism escalated the violence.[5] Political parties such as the Aydinlar Ocaği or the Hearth of the Enlightened (AO) and the National Salvation Party (MSP) mobilised support and increased social turbulence. The evolution of the violence was amplified with the changes from a predominantly rural context toward an urban environment with mass population movements to the cities for employment causing poverty and squatter settlements. A ‘clash’ of various groups illustrated by serious street violence between the Alevi and Sunni, Kurdish, non-Turkish such as Muslims from the Balkans, Communists and right-wing Ultranationalists among others proved that espousing Turkish nationalism and identity within a democratic space clearly contained hostilities that had not been effectively uprooted.

This period of unrivalled turmoil led to the 1980 military coup d’état, whereby the Turkish military took control of the government and closed down political parties, banning leaders from political interference and revoking the constitution as part of its sweeping reforms of the country.[6] The intervention of the Turkish armed forces into social and political life during the most tumultuous period of its history can be viewed as both a breakthrough since the military are seen to have saved the country from an impending civil war and become the bastion of Kemalism, but in doing so implemented a harsh regiment of torture and extreme violence that found hundreds of thousands arrested, executed or dying in custody.[7] Recent developments found the final two surviving military leaders General Kenan Evren – who served as president during the junta – along with Tahsin Sahinkaya arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutality of the military during that period.[8] The several years of martial rule was an attempt to transition Turkish society and governance toward democratisation; the first and significant step required was a complete overhaul of the Turkish constitution and restoring a more effective civilian government.

Other changes included basic education of Islamic principles and morals,[9] whereby military authorities purported that religious education had been corrupted by leadership and as such became part of the cause of the political and civic violence. Additionally, neo-liberal economic reforms based on individualistic and profitable activities – perhaps unintentionally – developed as a causal effect from the trauma of the radical changes that were implemented during the military coup and as such an increase in political disengagement and fear of losing property and family members compelled a change in economic processes.[10] Military interference continued particularly during the 1990’s where ideological and ethnic violence reared its ugly head once again, particularly the PKK and the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, mass violence such as the Sivas massacre, along with “deep state” suspicions that led to the death of President Turgut Ozal with assassinations of important military and judicial figures.

These suspicions have been solidified with the Ergenekon trials that found the indictment of apparent members of a clandestine secularist organisation that were secretly plotting against the Turkish government.[11] On the contrary, the Adelet ve Kalkinma Partisi [AKP], the popular centre-right political party founded by Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been consistently accused of implementing an Islamist agenda by addressing domestic lawmakers to execute changes against restrictions set by secular policies, foreign policy statements that imply a neo-Ottoman stance, and as said earlier, gradually restricting the power of the military that some imply to be a way to provide him with the freedom to continue strengthening this agenda hiding under the banner of international obligations toward EU accession.

It is essential to understand the influence media has with social life and thus arguably it’s often controversial relationship with politics since “almost everywhere in the world, most of the media is still politically differentiated along with general political orientations.”[12] To have named Fethullah Gülen, a Sufi preacher of peace and writer, the mastermind behind the coup and to label him a terrorist, whereby social media suddenly opened and went on the attack, is an expression of why identifying the nature of this relationship between politics and society is necessary. Ascertaining the degree of political influence and intervention on reporting and especially legal regulations that encourage partisan content through restrictions to freedom of expression is a model that can often be causally linked to the historical conditions of the country in question.

Thus, in order to understand the distinct Turkish experience along with the necessary and proper conceptualisation of the failure to consolidate human rights norms at political and cultural level, it is essential to feature historical and social factors that influence and ultimately undermine the effective habituation of democratic principles. These have been factored into several important cleavages, which include 1. Military and beaurecratic elitism and the uneasy relationship with the citizens, 2. The schism between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam [primarily Alevi], 3. Dominant ethnic rivalries namely between the Kurds and the Turks.[13]

Thus the recent and tumultuous history of the country and the constant suspicions against the potential hidden intentions vis-à-vis political, ethnic or religious leanings is linked to the reservations raised against media communication and freedom of speech. It does not help that the polarisation of these ethnic and religious cleavages undermine the democratic transformation within Turkey, and that may be exactly what is wanted. The Ottoman past remains highly influential, clearly visible with the symbolic relationship between Turkey’s military and government with Turkey itself considered the father, a preference for a paternal and perhaps authoritarian management of civil affairs rather than democratic.

Whilst defining ‘democracy’ is certainly ambiguous and perhaps to a degree the interpretation is relative to the customs and conventions in the context of each national government and its relationship with and regulation of its citizens, religious and ethnic cleavages rooted in Turkey’s unfavourable history that proves the acclimatisation of even the most basic tenets of democracy such as the structure and equitable distribution of executive powers along with the effective participation of and guaranteed rights of its citizens appears to have become crystallised in beaurecratic elitism, perhaps itself rooted in the former tradition of Ottoman centralism. While democratic progress and achievements have taken shape, they have nevertheless failed to consolidate culturally and appear superficial and at best mere “instruments of convenience.”[14]

 

[1] Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “Conservative Democracy and the Globalization of Freedom” Speech at the American Enterprise Institute (January 29, 2004)
[2] Hugh Poulton, Top Hat, Grey Wolf and the Crescent: Turkish Nationalism and the Turkish Republic, New York University Press (1997) 315
[3] Tuğrul Ansay, Don Wallace, Introduction to Turkish Law, Kluwer Law International (2011) 52
[4]Meltem Müftüler-Bac, Yannis A. Stivachtis, Turkey-European Union Relations: Dilemmas, Opportunities, and Constraints, Lexington Books (2008) 304
[5] Gerald MacLean, Abdullah Gul and the Making of the New Turkey, Oneworld Publications (2014)
[6] Elifcan Karacan, Remembering the 1980 Turkish Military Coup d‘État: Memory, Violence, and Trauma, Springer (2015) 139
[7]According to statistics, 650,000 citizens were arrested and taken into custody, with 230,000 placed on trial. 517 were sentenced to the death penality and 50 executed by hanging, along with 299 prisoners dying from ‘unknown’ causes. See The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey by Banu Elgur, (2010) 90
[8] Robert B Durham, False Flags, Covert Operations, & Propaganda (2014) 348
[9] Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı Din Bilgisi Oğretimi (Ankara, September 1981). Op. Cit., Hugh Poulton, 181.
[10] Op. Cit., Elifcan Karacan, 162
[11]Ebru Canan-Sokullu, Debating Security in Turkey: Challenges and Changes in the Twenty-First Century, Rowman & Littlefield (2013) 86
[12] Rasit Kaya and Baris Cakmur, “Politics and the Mass Media in Turkey,” Turkish Studies, (Vol 11:4) 521-537, December 2010
[13] Nevzat Soguk (1993) A study of the historico cultural reasons for turkey’s ‘inconclusive’ democracy, New Political Science, 13:1, 89-116,
[14] Ibid