The Road Ahead for Turkey  

Some may read our account of Turkish institutions and political economy so far as bleak. After all, haven’t we seen an authoritarian turn and the erosion of civil liberties

These worrying signs notwithstanding, a cautiously optimistic read is also possible. Perhaps Turkey is going through the pains of “institutional rebalancing”. 

To make this case, we need to revisit the origins of the ascendancy of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or the AKP). This can be found in two conflicting trends. First, as we have noted, the Turkish state building project was not wholeheartedly embraced by a large segment of the Anatolian population — to say the least. Religion, which was perceived to be under attack as part of this project, became one of the means of resistance to it. The sidelining of the Ottoman religious-legal establishment and religious scholars, the ulema, increased the importance of the religious fraternities, the tariqah, which, though outlawed during the Republican period, came to play a central role in this resistance. 

Second, though the conflict between the Kemalist military and bureaucratic elite and the more religious, conservative Anatolian population has been important throughout the history of the Republic, the Turkish state has periodically inculcated and relied upon a Muslim-nationalist synthesis, centering Turkish nationalism on a Turkish-Muslim identity. This identity, based on Sunni Islam, was carefully distinguished from the Islam of non-Turks, the Islam of the minority Alevis, and non-Muslim identities. This became particularly pronounced after the September 12, 1980 military coup. 

The coup took place in the midst of a period of escalating violence between leftist and rightist groups. Though both sides were equally responsible for the carnage (and Turkey was indeed in danger of becoming ungovernable in the run-up to the coup), the military identified with the objectives of at least part of the rightist groups, with which it had not only anti-communism but also nationalism as common cause. The coup was thus, for all practical purposes, against the left. 

The military’s subsequent strategy to weaken the left relied first and foremost on coercion. But it also turned to religion as an attempt to prevent the blossoming of leftist ideas in schools. Religiosity became state sanctioned, and resources started flowing to religious groups and schools. This trend became stronger under Turgut Özal’s two governments starting in 1983. The resulting Muslim-nationalist synthesis has since shaped every aspect of Turkish society (for a sociological account see Jenny White’s Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks

But as we have argued in the past, non-democratic rulers turning to Islam to prop up their regimes often sow the seeds of a different form of challenge to their power — as Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad family in Syria, and Houari Boumediene in Algeria discovered. In cultivating religion against the left, the Turkish military and bureaucratic elites also created a formidable foe. 

This started becoming clear in the mid-1990s, when the strongly Islamist Welfare Party, Refah Partisi, expanded its vote share and came to power in a coalition government in June 1996. But this was to be short-lived. On February 28, 1997, the Turkish military engineered another coup. This time it was a bloodless, “memorandum” coup; following the meeting of the National Security Council, the military issued a memorandum, including a strict ban against headscarves in universities, closing down of religious schools and clamping down on anti-military media, which the Prime Minister Erbakan was forced to sign. The coalition government duly collapsed. The rest was done by the Constitutional Court, which followed with proceedings to ban the Welfare Party.

But once the genie was out of the bottle, there was only so much that memoranda could do. Another religious party was soon formed. But a group of young politicians and activists, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül, argued that the uncompromising, almost militant religious tone of the Welfare Party and its successor were too rigid. They also criticized its anti-European policy, presenting membership of the EU as a major objective. They formed the AKP as a milder religious party — modeled perhaps in part on the conservative Christian Democrat parties in Europe.

The Kemalist military and bureaucratic elites would have none of it, however. They were suspicious of the AKP from its inception, partly because of its religious roots and partly because it represented the ‘Black Turks’ who they instinctively want to keep in a subservient position in society. The distrust reached crisis proportions in April 2007, when the military, alarmed by the prospect of Abdullah Gül and his head-scarfed wife moving into the presidential palace and the AKP increasing its control of the government, attempted another coup via memorandum, this time posting on its website. Many in the AKP are reported to have expected a harder clampdown to follow, some even packing their bags for an extended stay in jail, where the military routinely sent politicians it did not agree with.

But it did not come to pass. The military was already weaker, and perhaps its leadership more split on coming out of the barracks to defend a pure notion of secularism. Turkish civil society was also stronger and clearly supported the AKP as witnessed by the party’s vote share in the subsequent elections. 

In a manner reminiscent to the spirals of conflicts in international relations, the conflict between the military and the AKP spiraled from this point onward. As power gradually shifted to the AKP and away from the Kemalist elite and the EU accession process hit a wall, removing an external check on Turkish politics, groups within the Turkish police and judiciary loosely allied with the AKP started turning against the military and the Kemalist establishment (more details on this can be found in Dani Rodrik and Pınar Doğan’s blog

So doesn’t this all justify pessimism rather than cautious optimism? Aren’t we seeing the emergence of a new authoritarianism? Perhaps a lurch towards Islamism?

Though there isn’t much to condone in the recent developments, there are also several reasons why this may be an inevitable part of the process of institutional rebalancing in Turkey.

First, a reaction was inevitable to the domination of Turkish institutions throughout the 20th century by the Kemalist elite and the military. Though we would all like such reactions to be within the context of the rule of law, the reality is often messier and uglier. The hope is that, in the same way that French democracy came out of the ashes of the lawlessness and carnage of the Terror of the French Revolution, Turkish democracy will emerge from the pains of institutional rebalancing away from military rule. The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that such processes are both slow and uncertain. It took almost 80 years for French democracy to find its footing. That’s an awfully long time for us to wait for inclusive political institutions in Turkey. What’s more all that waiting may be in vain if things go wrong — if instead of “broadening the base” this institutional rebalancing brings to power a new coalition at the expense of the rest of society. In fact, truly broadening the political base in Turkey would necessitate sharing power with the millions of Kurds and Alevis, who are still discriminated against — a prospect cherished neither by the AKP nor the Kemalist elite. 

Second, the Turkish society is politically more active today than in the 1980s, when military repression severely depoliticized it. It is true that press freedom has taken several steps back and many are afraid of speaking their minds. And yet a politically active society that has become more consistently organized in political parties and civil society organizations will, sooner or later, demand greater voice and participation in the political process too. 

Third, the AKP is far from monolithic. Power struggles within the party can be the beginning of greater institutionalization of power. Perhaps we are already witnessing some of this in the recent struggles between the founders of the party, more closely associated with the Naqshbandi tarqiah, and those from the Nurcu movement associated with the influential and controversial preacher Fethullah Gülen, which has been active in the police and state bureaucracy (for more on this power struggle, see Gareth Jenkins’s article). 

Fourth, as our last post illustrated, the Turkish economy is doing reasonably well, and one optimistic read — but not the only one as we noted there — is that this is because Turkish economic institutions are becoming more inclusive, and this can start a virtuous circle of the sort we have discussed in Why Nations Fail. 

Fifth, AKP rule has been associated with the empowerment of the less powerful — almost the disenfranchised — segments of Turkish society. Another emphasis in Why Nations Fail is on how this type of empowerment can be transformative for political institutions. Here, research by Erik Meyersson is particularly interesting. He shows, using regression discontinuity applied to the 1994 municipal elections, that the election of a mayor from the Islamist Welfare Party is associated with a significant increase in female education (presumably because conservative families found it more acceptable to allow their daughters to go to school dominated by mayors from this party). But this increase in education also appears to have had beneficial long-run impacts, particularly on the likelihood of adolescent marriage and future political participation. So the Islamist parties in Turkey may — and again it should be emphasized that this is just a “may” — be part of a broader social transformation benefiting those previously excluded from economic and social advancement. 

Sixth, we are also hopeful that spirals of distrust and conflict often have the seeds of their own dissolution (as argued, for example, here), so Black Turks and White Turks can one day share power within a more inclusive political institutional setting. 

All of this justifies neither complacency nor downplaying of the political risks confronting Turkey at the moment. But a modicum of hope can also be found if you are inclined to look for it.

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