Turkey, from tension to transition

The fierce conflicts of Turkey's last year may create the foundations of a new socio-political consensus, says Galip Dalay.

Galip Dalay
25 April 2014

Turkey has come under an intense international spotlight as a result of two major conflicts that erupted in 2013: the protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park in the summer, which began as an environmental campaign but soon acquired far wider dimensions, and a fierce power-struggle between the governing Justice & Development Party (AKP) and the Gülen movement, a hierarchical and opaque religious group with a significant presence in the state apparatus. The latter was initiated by a sensational graft inquiry announced on 17 December. Both events have been portrayed as menacing to Turkey’s democracy, ominous for its state-society relations, and threatening to the ever more amorphous "Turkish model".    

Indeed, in the short term, grave damage has already been inflicted on the country. Turkey's societal polarisation has become acute; the rule of law, which has never been strong in Turkey, was the first casualty of this last roiling year; the country's international and regional prestige has suffered; and the AKP's successful management of the economy has been dented. Yet, the story does not end there. In the background, promising new trends have been set in motion.

The most striking is the unconventional nature of opposition. It was people on the streets, rather than opposition parties in the parliament, who mounted the most formidable challenge to the AKP's rule of more than eleven years. The result of the Gezi Park protests especially has been to precipitate debates on the need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of democracy in Turkey, with ideas of participatory democracy at their centre. Moreover, the ongoing power-struggle has created momentum behind redefining the boundaries between the state and religion, with liberal version of secularism as the desired goal.

A dualist inheritance

The current developments have roots in Turkey’s political history. Turkey's early multi-party elections, the first of which was held in 1950, were marked by an overwhelming vote for the Democratic Party (DP), which situated itself as the voice of the disaffected and disadvantaged. In the three elections between 1950 and 1960, the Republican People Party (CHP) - the arch-defender of the Kemalist system of social and political engineering attributed to modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk - failed to challenge the DP.

In 1960, the military staged a coup, toppling the DP government and executing some of its prominent ministers, including prime minister Adnan Menderes. After the coup, the military-led bloc - which regarded itself as the embodiment and guarantor of the Kemalist establishment - put a new system in place. This reduced the significance of civilian politics in the system, while conferring the role of the ultimate arbiter to an alliance between the military and the high bureaucracy.  

The legacy of these years was the creation of dual poles of representation in the system. A large share of Turkey’s population came to be represented by centre-right or Islamic-leaning parties advocating civilian politics, whereas more secular-minded, Kemalist and western-oriented people gave their backing to the military-bureaucratic institutional nexus. The paradox of this equilibrium was that the CHP received the secularist vote, but did not primarily represent it; for the latter role continued to belong to the tutelary regime at the heart of the state.

This duality was the hallmark of Turkish politics for half a century. Its clear democratic deficiency led to Turkey being aptly described as semi-democratic. In the years after the AKP came to power in November 2002, however, an active struggle against the military-bureaucratic grip on politics led to the eradication of the old regime and a gradual democratisation of the political system. 

An inner change

The defeat of a once-powerful system, though, has lacked a vital ingredient: the emergence of a vigorous opposition able to challenge the AKP government and keep it on a reformist track. The Gezi Park eruption glaringly demonstrated this vacuum. There was no coherent force that could give voice to people who felt unrepresented in the system. Yet the protests did generate a debate, especially at the civil-society level, about a more sophisticated understanding of democracy. The search for participatory democracy, which does not underestimate or overlook the value of the ballot-box, is central to this. 

In addition, the dispute between the AKP and the Gülen movement has put on the agenda a new concept of liberal secularism that could yet gain broader acceptance. For most of the Turkish republic’s history, the rigid understanding and militant enforcement of secularism by the Jacobin-style republican elites has made the term deeply controversial. Conservative elements of society came to regard secularism as a state instrument designed to infringe their socio-religious rights and liberties. In response they developed a negative view of and resistance to the secularist idea and model. Now, the discourse adopted by the quarrelling parties in the current power-struggle suggests that this may change. 

For alongside their religion-charged parlance, both sides have increasingly adopted secular language. The government focuses on the presence of a religious movement within the state apparatus that prioritises its own agenda over the public interest; this requires a redrawing of the boundary between the state and religious groups. In turn the Gülen movement accuses the government of adopting an ideologically driven, i.e. is Islamist, agenda, and it frames this charge in secular terms.  

The fact that the wrangling parties each come from Islamic backgrounds gives their newly adopted secular language a weight that could influence conservative and religious circles. A liberal understanding of secularism that both accommodates the rights of pious people yet inhibits the instrumentalisation of religion in the quest for power, could emerge as a new consensus.

Participatory democracy that respects the ballot-box, and a liberal form of secularism that protects the liberties of believers and non-believers alike: it may yet be that the turbulent scenes of Turkey’s last year have planted the seeds of long-term progress.

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