Institutional Continuities  

Much of the historiography of modern Turkey emphasizes the major reforms and revolutions leading to the founding of the Turkish Republic. One might then have expected a rupture from the Ottoman institutions we discussed in the previous post. But the importance of modernizing efforts, coups and revolutions during this period of modern Turkish history notwithstanding, there are also powerful continuities between Ottoman and modern Turkish institutions.

In fact, one aspect of institutions has remained in essence largely unchanged, casting a long shadow on modern Turkish society: the absence of state institutions and bureaucracy independent from the ruling elite.

As we have seen, state institutions and bureaucracy (including the judiciary) were under the direct command of the Sultan and the ruling elite and thus had little independence during the centuries of Ottoman rule. This changed little after the modernizing reforms started in the 19th century, or after so-called Young Turks, especially the powerful İttahat ve Terakki Partisi, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), ascended to power, or after the republican period, in which a new group of officers who had cut their teeth with the CUP started to dominate politics.

A central cause of this continuity lies in the motivation and nature of the institutional reforms in the Ottoman period. These were not implemented, or even supported, by a broad coalition nor were they an indirect response to the pressures and demands from non-elites in society. Rather, they were the outcome of an effort by a narrow and relatively privileged segment of society to strengthen the state capacity and modernize the institutions and the economy in part in response to the financial, economic and military crises facing the empire.

This is not to deny the importance of some of the reforms nor the presence of some more ‘radical’ visions of institutional transformation. For example, though in part a concession to European powers, particularly Britain, in exchange for support for the Ottoman struggle against Mehmet Ali who had declared the independence of Egypt from Ottoman rule, the reforms promulgated with the Gülhane (Rose Garden) edict, which started the era of the Tanzimat (meaning ‘reforms’) on November 3, 1839, had many truly revolutionary elements. Perhaps most radical were the declarations of equality before the law (which were until then essentially unthinkable and unfortunately didn’t really mean much thereafter) and “guarantees for life, honor and property of the Sultan’s subjects” which in practice meant guarantees of the rights of these subjects against the Sultan, who until then did not recognize such rights.

But much else in these reforms was part of a project of modernizing the empire with military, internal administrative, legal and financial reforms to strengthen the empire, without a fundamental transformation of political and economic institutions. This was witnessed by the fact that many of these reforms had no popular basis (nor would it have occurred to any of the leading figures to seek popular support).

The first parliamentary elections under a new constitution were held in December 1876 and January 1877, undoubtedly a landmark event, even if it took further military defeats in the Balkans and the deposing of two monarchs to bring the elites to this point. But this parliamentary period was cut short when Sultan Abdülhamit II closed down the parliament indefinitely and started a period of absolutist rule and repression.

Opposition to Abdülhamit was spearheaded by the Young Turks, a group of young officers and bureaucrats (trained in the newly-founded civil service and war academies), particularly those who had organized themselves as the CUP, founded in Paris and operating in Ottoman lands as a clandestine organization. Though members of the CUP opposed Abdülhamit and wished to reform the Ottoman economy, society and military, their aims were to preserve and strengthen the Ottoman state and take control of it themselves (in this, they were similar to the Meiji reformers in 19th-century Japan, which we discussed in Why Nations Fail, though they never attempted or articulated as radical an institutional transformation).

The influence of the CUP in Ottoman politics was constant from the 1890s onwards, even if their involvement in the government ebbed and flowed. Most important for our emphasis here is that the CUP never envisaged the creation of more inclusive political institutions. Nor did it attempt any form of grass-roots organization. All of this was made quite apparent after the revolution of July 1908, led by CUP officers from the Macedonian and Thracian armies, which ended Abdülhamit’s absolutist rule, bringing back a constitutionalist regime with many of the leading figures of the CUP in charge (even though the CUP itself then and thereafter remained a secret organization). They immediately turned against anything they deemed as opposition. For example, when the political demonstrations that had started against Abdülhamit’s regime continued and turned into strikes and demands for wage rises by workers, the CUP-dominated government reacted strongly, repressing demonstrations and banning strike activity and trade unions. They were interested not in building a regime with broad support, but in monopolizing political power themselves.

The CUP monopoly of power became more naked after 1909, in response to the ‘counter-revolution’ against their control of government (most likely supported and funded by Abdülhamit). In the subsequent years, the government was controlled by the army and a cadre of military officers, but with the strings in the hands of leading CUP figures, particularly after 1913, now intent on consolidating their power by curbing all sorts of freedoms and suppressing any dissent.

There had been previously more liberal elements in the reform movement including Prince Sabahattin (interestingly, long seen as a reactionary figure in republican Turkish historiography because of his liberal, rather than statist, economic views). But they were quickly sidelined by the CUP.

The CUP dominance and repression increased in the years leading up to the World War I, particularly after their coup in January 1913 (following their sidelining earlier in the previous year). This was the prelude to the Ottoman entry into World War I engineered by the CUP leadership and the later massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians most likely planned and orchestrated by the same leading CUP figures.

At some level, that the CUP sought to build not any form of inclusive institutions but its own dominance and repression shouldn’t be surprising. It was an organization coming from the military, with no clear social or economic basis and certainly not representing a broad coalition within Ottoman society that would have benefited from more inclusive institutions (and it is questionable whether any such broad coalition could have formed in the Ottoman society). They were swept to power not by opposing the strong power of the Ottoman central state, but because of the weakness of the Sultan and because they articulated a strategy for further strengthening the Ottoman state domestically and internationally — and thanks, in no small part, to their ability to wield military power. Once in power, they were not under pressure to introduce constraints on the exercise of the power of the Ottoman state nor did they have any reason to do so.

How the CUP engineered the Ottoman entry into World War I gives an illustration of how the upper cadre of the CUP wanted to — and, given the concentration of quasi-absolute powers in their hands, could — conduct state affairs in essentially the exact parallel of the Ottoman Sultans’ absolutism. A handful of Young Turks, including two of the de facto leaders of the CUP, Enver and Talât, secretly negotiated a treaty with the Germans one day after Russia had declared war against Germany, committing the Ottoman Empire to also join the war.

The Turkish war of independence in the aftermath of the Ottoman defeat in the war and occupation of several parts of the empire by the Allied powers was spearheaded by another group of young officers, with Mustafa Kemal (later to be called Atatürk, ‘the great Turk’) at the helm. Their approach and attitudes were very much shaped by the CUP, of which many were members.

The Turkish Republic, founded in 1923 following the victory in the war of independence, was undoubtedly a more radical departure from many Ottoman institutions, particularly in abolishing the monarchy, modernizing state bureaucracy, regulating the role of religion, partially liberating and empowering women, and its intention to industrialize Turkey. But one aspect of the Ottoman institutions was never challenged: now state institutions and bureaucracy would be under the command of the new ruling party, Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP or the Republican People’s Party. Once again, there was no need for broad-based support. In fact, the reforms were formulated with the intent of being imposed on the population that was presumed, rightly, to be opposed to several aspects of them.

With this background and intentions, it should be no surprise that the new republican leadership also did not feel compelled — or wish — to develop the independence of state institutions or other institutional constraints on the exercise of economic, political and social power.

The one-party regime with the Atatürk’s CHP ruling supreme could not of course last forever. It came to an end in the aftermath of World War II, but the institutional legacy tracing back to the Ottoman Sultan’s absolutist control of all state institutions would not only last until then but would also condition the path of democratic politics thereafter, as we will discuss next.

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