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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.


The Political Economy of Turkey  

In previous posts (here, here, here and here), we have discussed the history of political conflict and institutions in Turkey. The natural question for a political economist is how all of this impacts the Turkish economy. This is particularly relevant for understanding how the Turkish economy has had a fairly good run in terms of its macroeconomic performance over the last decade — essentially since the Turkish financial and economic crisis in 2001, and perhaps not coincidentally more or less since the AKP (the Justice and Development Party or Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), came to power in November 2002..

This chart, courtesy of Turkish Data Monitor, shows the evolution of Turkish GDP over the last two decades. (The chart shows GDP in US dollars using the market exchange rate; in PPP, the increase in the Turkish GDP since 2002 is less pronounced but still in stark contrast to the performance of the Turkish economy in the 1990s).

So what explains the turnaround?

Though standard macroeconomic factors, such as the interest rate policy, government spending, confidence, and export performance, are undoubtedly important, we suspect economic institutions and the shadow of politics have been equally defining for the Turkish economy since the beginning of the 21st century.

As we have argued here, Atatürk and his party, the CHP (the Republican People’s Party or Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) engineered a state building project, modernizing the economy and strengthening the control of the state over the economy and society. But this did not involve building inclusive political or economic institutions. Though, as part of this effort common with many other examples of state building and extractive growth, the CHP did encourage industrialization and improved certain aspects of the Turkish economic institutions, the state played a major role in the economy and was certainly more than an equal partner with private business. For business, connections with the CHP, which could grant extensive subsidies and protection, were often as important as entrepreneurial innovation. As seems common with other episodes of ‘state capitalism’ (as we have argued elsewhere), the motivation for state control was not just ideological but was dictated in part by the desire of the CHP elites to keep control over the economy and society. 

A major turning point was the 1950 election of the DP (the Democratic Party or Demokrat Parti) which not only started the political ascendancy of the ‘Black Turks’, but also loosened state control and encouraged and supported the Anatolian entrepreneurs. The result was a major economic boom during the first term of the DP. 

But it would be wrong to see the DP as the harbinger of economic inclusivity. Though it did level the playing field in business, several other factors meant that the extent of this was rather limited. First, the DP had no intention of challenging the monopoly of a few established companies. Second, the DP found it politically expedient to turn connections with the conservative Anatolian businesses and landowners into a clientelistic patronage network, which was then perfected by its follower, the AP (the Justice Party or Adalet Partisi). Third, seeing itself as embattled and harassed by the CHP, military and bureaucratic elites, it had no intention of creating independent state institutions, preferring instead, to the extent possible, to take control of them. Fourth, once electorally challenged, the DP did not hesitate to pursue unsustainable macroeconomic policies, with significant costs on the Turkish economy. 

The DP episode highlights a host of parallels with the later attempts to loosen state control over the economy and society, pursued, albeit often half-heartedly, by the AP in the 1960s and the 70s; the ANAP (the Motherland Party or Anavatan Partisi, in the 1980s); and by the AKP in the 2000s. First, it was these parties, with roots in conservative circles in Anatolia, that often spoke for the ‘Black Turks’. Second, it was these parties that brought some more economic inclusivity — even if this was often just for business. But third, this was always limited and came woefully short, often getting mired in clientelism and sometimes just creating another group of highly connected businessmen making money thanks to state support. 

An epochal change for the Turkish economy came under Turgut Özal’s first ANAP government, which liberalized the economy more than its predecessors, lifted a whole range of restrictions on business creation, made the Turkish lira convertible, and encouraged export growth. Between 1983 and 1987, Turkish economic growth picked up rapidly, fueled in part by exports. But this rising tide did not lift all or even most boats and did not translate into a broad-based improvement in standards of living. This period also witnessed rapidly increasing inequality; there were no actions to break the hold of domestic monopolies, and connections continued to be the main currency in the economy. In fact, during Özal’s reign there was an explosion in corruption.

One hypothesis — which of course needs to be investigated more systematically — is that the beginning of the AKP government saw an opening of economic opportunities to ‘Anatolian tigers,’ Anatolian entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, unparalleled at least since the DP’s first term. This is best exemplified by the rise of several business organizations representing small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, often with conservative, Anatolian (and strongly Muslim) backgrounds, such as MÜSİAD, the Independent Industrialists’ and Business Persons’ Association and TUSKON, the Turkish Industrialists’ and Business Persons’ Confederation. MÜSİAD, for example, in name, in rhetoric and in reality opposed TÜSİAD, the powerful big business association that had played an important role in the Turkish economy and politics for several decades. MÜSİAD, founded in 1990, expanded and became a political and economic force to be reckoned with under AKP. It is natural to expect that this leveling of the business playing field, which broadened both the geographical and social basis of entrepreneurship, contributed to the robust economic performance over the last decade, though again, to the best of our knowledge, there is no systematic evidence on this. (The main competing hypothesis, which needs to be investigated, is that the rise of MÜSİAD and TUSKON was at the expense of other businesses, for example, just shifting government contracts from one to another group of businesses, thus a much more of a ‘zero-sum’ affair). 

Other factors probably also contributed to economic growth in the 2000s. Particularly important was the continuation of the major macroeconomic reforms that had started under the previous coalition government (in particular led by the then finance minister Kemal Derviş), mostly in response to the deep financial and economic crisis in 2001. These reforms brought public finances, the government budget deficit and the chronic almost triple digit inflation under control, and the AKP stuck with them. More broadly, AKP administration pursued sound, orthodox policies. In fact, in some areas, it appeared fairly surefooted, for example shielding Turkish businesses from the full impact of the global recession by sharply reducing (or pushing the Turkish Central Bank to reduce) interest rates and expanding domestic demand. The stable macroeconomic environment, together with the expansion of credit to consumers, fueled consumption growth, particularly by the growing Turkish middle class.

The greater stability of the majority government under AKP, as compared with a series of weak and ineffective coalition governments before 2002, might have also contributed to consumer and business confidence. 

But one should not exaggerate the prospects of the Turkish economy. It has experienced sizable current account deficits over the last several years and there are also other signs that it will not be able to sustain the growth rates of the 2000s, and growth already slowed down considerably in 2012. 

In fact, there is no evidence that Turkey has broken out of what some like to call “the middle income trap,” and does not seem poised to achieve East Asian-type growth rates that would be necessary to close the gap with European Union economies. 

We believe this is just a reflection of the fact that Turkish economic and political institutions are still far from being fully inclusive. Even though the AKP has gone some way towards leveling the playing field, particularly making economic opportunities more widely available to Anatolian small and medium-sized businesses, the problems in politics we identified in our first post in this series are looming large. Associated with this, businesses are still greatly beholden to the state. Even if the state is now controlled by the AKP rather than the usual ‘White Turkish’ elite, the implications are similar: the government or the state can still pick winners or in the last moment cancel contracts (as was witnessed just last week). It can even bring huge tax bills against businesses it does not get along with (e.g., against the Doğan newspaper group). 

Major structural problems also continue to dog the Turkish economy. According to the World Bank Doing Business report, Turkey is still pretty bad place to do business or to have to go to court. The judiciary is highly inefficient, arbitrary and even worse, biased. These challenges to economic growth are still waiting for reform — as they have been for a long while.

Turkey still has a long way to travel to inclusive institutions. This necessarily undercuts its growth potential.


Black Turks, White Turks  

In our last post, we briefly discussed the early history of modern Turkey. If, as we argued, there are indeed powerful continuities between Ottoman institutions and those of the early Turkish Republic, then the continuities between the early years of the republic and today shouldn’t surprise anybody. 

In the interim, Turkey swept aside one-party rule and had periods of fairly competitive democratic elections. But this has always been in the shadow of three social processes inherited from the early republic: a powerful military, weak state institutions with little independence from those controlling the government, and deep divisions within society.

One aspect of these divisions, which has been particularly defining for recent history of Turkey, was pithily captured by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan when he said (see here): 

In this country there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks. Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks. 

White Turks here are the well-educated, well-to-do Kemalist elites fashioning themselves on (some of) Atatürk’s ideas. They are often associated with state bureaucracy and the military. Black Turks are those that the White Turks see as low-educated, lower-class and either still peasants or unable to have shaken off their peasant heritage. 

Even if the terminology of Black and White Turks entered the Turkish lexicon only recently, to understand what Tayyip Erdoğan meant we should go back to the divisions and fault lines that had already become apparent in the Ottoman society in the 19th century. 

Religion — Islam — played a central role in Ottoman society, which comprised mostly of agricultural workers, with limited education. As we discussed in Why Nations Fail, the central state went to pains to limit dissemination of information as part of its control of society. Though for several centuries the central state was able to dominate religious practice and thought, including the religious scholars, the ulema, religious belief inevitably has its own dynamics. These dynamics became stronger during the 19th century as the previously subservient non-Muslim populations rose up and often successfully gained their independence in the European territories of the empire. 

The 1909 ‘counter-revolution’ against the CUP (the Committee of Union and Progress) regime we discussed in the previous post had its roots in the reaction of the lower level ulema, even if it probably was engineered and funded by Abdülhamit. (It is interesting that, witnessing the subservience of state institutions and even the religious-legal establishment, the upper echelons of the ulema appear to have been happy to go along with the CUP, which now controlled the government.) They were able to tap into conservative attitudes, aroused because of perceived threats to their way of life and religion, and the established order.

The leadership of Atatürk’s CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or The Republican People’s Party), after initial attempts and failures to mobilize the religious conservative attitudes of much of the population, started viewing religion and large part of the peasant majority as obstacles to their project. No wonder then that many of the reforms of the CHP were directly targeted at repressing religion, silencing and sidelining this majority, and imposing a new language, historiography and culture on the Turkish people. 

The military and political dominance of the CHP, and their willingness to use robust force if necessary, ensured that the Kemalist project succeeded until the end of World War II under the auspices of the one-party (CHP) rule. Cracks in the system had already appeared, however. In 1946, the Democratic Party (DP or Demokrat Parti) was founded by previous members of the CHP. Though the CHP leadership initially thought that they could control this new party, this proved impossible. In 1950, the DP swept to power with a landslide election victory. Their deputies, and certainly their supporters, were more rural and had a stronger background in commerce and small and medium-size business (contrasting with the bureaucratic or military background as the majority of CHP deputies had). This was the beginning of the political ascendancy of what would become known as the Black Turks. 

We will discuss the economic implications of the DP regime in a later post. For our purposes here, the end of the DP period is more relevant. On May 27, 1960, the first of many military coups in Turkey took place, putting an end to the first Turkish experiment with democracy. The military swiftly moved to hang three on the leaders of the DP, including the prime minister, Adnan Menderes. 

The DP and Menderes had certainly turned authoritarian toward the end of their rule, using repression and heavy-handed censorship of the media. But one can also see the roots of the military coup in the DP’s ability to mobilize large segments of the population until then excluded from politics and also its success in utilizing religion for political purposes. Strikingly, the military coup against the ever first popularly-elected government of Turkish history received the enthusiastic support of the ‘Turkish left’ because the Turkish left had its origins in state bureaucracy and the military and thus identified with the CHP — and hence just like in Latin America, making a mockery of the right vs. left distinction in Turkey. 

The conflicts within Turkish society that came to the surface and then to the boiling point in the next several decades (which we will discuss in our next post) weren’t just a repeat of those between the CHP and DP elites and their supporters. Rather, the brief democratic episode of the 1950s proved that elections wouldn’t easily bring inclusive politics to Turkey. The CHP elites could not stomach losing the election, so immediately started to work to undermine the DP government. The DP elites in return had no compunction in using their power and control over the state, temporary though it proved to be, to undermine the CHP (even attempting to close the CHP in the same way that Kemalist forces had previously and would subsequently try to close opposing parties). This pattern, made more likely by the lack of independent state bureaucracy and institutions, would repeat throughout the next 50 years. 

Indeed, the parallels between the AKP and the DP are hard to miss. So it should be no surprise that the battle lines were also similar, and the conflict that pitted the Kemalist forces of the CHP and military elites against the ‘religious populism’ of the DP would reemerge in the conflicts between the new Kemalists on the one hand, and the AKP and the Black Turks on the other. 

In the intervening years, the military came to increasingly define itself as the defender of all parts of the Kemalist ideology. It purged officers that it suspected of strong religious beliefs or insufficient Kemalist zeal. 

Then, perhaps predictably, the lack of trust and spiral of animosity between the Kemalist elites and the DP of the 1950s reached alarming proportions in the 2000s as the Kemalist political establishment and especially the military immediately took a hostile attitude towards the AKP (whose leader, Tayyip Erdoğan, was barred from taking part in the 2002 elections and could assume power only later after being cleared from the charge of inciting religious hatred). 

The military swiftly moved to threatening another coup against the AKP with a memorandum on its website in April 2007 after the AKP gained control of the presidency (the military had taken actions three more times against elected governments between 1960 and 2002, including in 1997 against the Refah Partisi which could be seen as a predecessor of the AKP even though AKP has partly distanced itself from this party and has generally taken more liberal attitudes on a range of issues). It also threatened action against the AKP from the get-go. Ominously, the Constitutional Court started proceedings to close the AKP because their religious outlook (‘plans’?) violated the constitution. Particularly emotive was the fact that the wife of the new president, the number two of the AKP, Abdullah Gül, wore the headscarf, something banned in public spaces by the Turkish Constitution. 

But the situation was different in 2007 than in 1960. The AKP had already organized deeper social networks within modern Turkish society, and had taken control of large parts of the bureaucracy and the increasingly heavily militarized police, while the status of the military within Turkish society was at an all-time low. This time Kemalists and the White Turks lost.


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.


Ottoman Heritage  

In our previous post, we wondered how, after a propitious start, moves towards greater democracy and civil rights in Turkey have stopped and perhaps even gone in reverse.

It will be no surprise to readers of Why Nations Fail that we see the roots of the current problems in the history of Turkish institutions, which trace back to the Ottoman heritage.

We argued in Why Nations Fail that the Ottoman Empire was a perfect specimen of absolutist political institutions, concentrating power in the hands of the Sultan and a narrow elite. First and foremost, this was the result of the highly militaristic nature of the Ottoman state, organized around conquest and expansion, with the role of the Sultan mainly as the commander-in-chief.

The society was explicitly divided into two classes. The ruling class consisted of the military and the state bureaucracy. The rest, referred to as reaya, literally meaning “the flock”, consisted of everybody else doing all the economic activities, mostly centered on agriculture. The military came in part a quasi-feudal arrangement called, the tımar system, whereby lands owned by the Sultan were leased out in exchange for a number of soldiers to be made available at the time of war. From the 14th and 15th centuries on, the military, and to some degree state bureaucracy, came to rely increasingly on the devşirme system, which involved children being taken from the non-Muslim (Christian) subjects of the empire, converted to Islam, and brought up without any political allegiance other than to the Sultan. In fact, the system was largely the outcome of a strategy by the central state to reduce its dependence on tımar holders, who might have otherwise have developed the economic and military power to challenge the Sultan and his bureaucracy. Other strategies involved moving tımar holders large distances within the empire, taking their lands away periodically, and granting tımar rights to soldiers and bureaucrats from the devşirme system in order to prevent the formation of local alliances and concentration of power to rival the central state. The increasing proportion of grand viziers coming from the devşirme system, rather than from local notables and established families, was also part of this strategy. 

Not only military but other political and social institutions were structured so as to minimize constraints on the Sultan and the central state’s power. State bureaucracy, including what we would today view as the equivalent of the judiciary branch, was an instrument of imperial power and thus fully subservient to the Sultan, who was effectively the law and thus above the law (both public and criminal law were based on the Sultan’s decrees). This arrangement naturally removed other potential institutional constraints on the ruler’s power. It was only much later in the history of the Ottoman Empire that parts of the military became sufficiently empowered to resist attempted reforms, and this was only in the context of military reforms targeted at their own removal. 

An interesting argument by Noah Feldman, in The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State claims that the ulema, the religious-legal establishment of Islamic societies, acted as a constraint on rulers. Whether this is true in other Islamic societies is debatable, but it is far from the case in the Ottoman Empire, where the ulema were also integrated into the state bureaucracy under a hierarchical structure under the control of the Sultan and the ruling elite. In fact, the Sultan was in many ways the most powerful representative of religious power, even before but particularly after the caliphate passed to the Ottomans (one of the Sultan’s titles was “the shadow of God”). Defending the Islamic faith and community against the outside world and particularly the infidels was the Sultan’s charge.

Limited private property rights in land (in many core parts of the empire only in less than 10% of the land), the successful strategies of the central state in preventing the emergence of economically and locally independent, powerful tımar holders, the dependence of merchants on the state for many of their activities, and the non-autonomous political and economic status of the cities also implied that economic constraints on royal power which sprang up in Western Europe also failed to develop in the Ottoman Empire.

Other aspects of social institutions were also highly hierarchical — for example, completely eschewing the notion of a single law applying to all subjects — thus creating an environment more conducive to the survival of extractive, absolutist institutions.

All of this is not uncontroversial, however.

First, parts of it sound similar to the thesis of ‘Oriental despotism’ going back to Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx (in the form of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’), Weber and Wittfogel. But the differences from our account are noteworthy. Those thinkers saw something qualitatively different in Oriental societies. We see them as attempting the building of extractive political institutions under their control in exactly the same way that European monarchs also did (and in some cases such as the French almost succeeded). In fact, there is a huge literature, mostly by Turkish scholars, criticizing the view that the Ottoman Empire was a highly absolutist state, an example of Oriental despotism. Some of this is on target as a criticism of the ‘eurocentric’ Oriental despotism school, but does not contradict the strong absolutism of the Ottoman state and the almost complete absence of institutions constraining the power of the ruler and ruling elite (and some of it is very very off target…).

Second, even the most absolutist states of the time, given resources and technology, were much less able than the modern nation-state to regulate economic and social activity over its territories. In the Ottoman case, many parts of the empire, particularly much of the Middle East and North Africa, were peripheral and the state was not even present to keep law and order — let alone restrain extraction by local elites.

Third, extractive institutions in general, and strongly absolutist ones in particular, are neither badly designed nor static. In fact, only great organizational skills and almost farsighted institutional design on the part of the early Ottoman rulers could have turned a little insignificant polity on marginal Anatolian lands into a worldwide empire to be reckoned with. Nor were these institutions static in any sense. They changed and adapted to circumstances after the Ottomans started expanding, in some sense, perfecting their absolutism during this phase. They changed and adapted again when Ottoman expansion came to an end (as shown convincingly by Şevket Pamuk in “Institutional Change and the Longevity of the Ottoman Empire, 1500-1800”.

This institutional heritage is very consequential. We’ll argue in our next post that several aspects of these institutions survived the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and formed an important part of the institutions of the Turkish Republic.