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Thematic Guide to Modern Turkey

Doğan Eşkinat, Columbia University


Heir to the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 following a four-year armed conflict across the Anatolian peninsula. The foundation was forged by prominent figures of the defeated Ottoman military, including Kazim Karabekir, Celal Bayar, and Ismet Inonu, all of whom were subsumed under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In this respect, the roots of modern Turkey date to the formation of the Committee of Union and Progress, a diverse corps of anti-Imperial activists that solidified its power over the Ottoman state in 1908. This development, which paved the way for military tutelage, has influenced the country's history to this day.

Foundation and Authoritarian Modernization

The Republic's early years, often referred to as "the single-party period, " began with a period of rapid modernization under Ataturk's iron fist, continued through the Republican People's Party's (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) decades-long cling to power, and ultimately lasted until the first competitive elections, held in 1950. Although the political system's "character" came to be associated with this entire period, the core campaign may be more narrowly dated to the years between 1925–1938. After the Şeyh Said Rebellion of 1925, the central government attempted to make up for its lack of control over the country and its people by enacting a law to suspend press freedoms (Takrir-i Sükûn Kanunu), and proceeded to purge political opponents in so-called "Independence Courts. " Before long, the regime was virtually unchallenged and had become free to pursue its rapid modernization agenda.

Multi-Party Elections and the Rise of the Democrats

Turkey officially transitioned into a multi-party democracy in 1946. However, the first elections of the Republican period were marked by partisan violence and other obstructions. It was therefore not until 1950 that truly competitive elections were held. That year the Democratic Party (Demokrat Parti) won a landslide victory and embarked on a decade of rule. The party consisted of former Republican Party elites who differed from Kemal's secularist-authoritarian modernization path but failed to break off from the establishment until worldwide regime changes promoted competitive elections. In this sense, the DP emerged as a popular reaction against the radical reform agenda of the 1930s, and set about reversing Republican actions such as the Turkish-language call to prayer and utilization of the state against political opponents. The party's three-term run, however, was interrupted by the military's lower ranks. Agitated by deteriorating living standards and the DP's perceived targeting of Republican progress, armed officers brought down the democratically elected government through the Republic's first coup d'etat on May 27, 1960. Following one of the Republic's most controversial court cases, President Celal Bayar, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, and ministers Fatin Rustu Zorlu and Hasan Polatkan were sentenced to death. While war hero and Ataturk's former Prime Minister Bayar's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, the rest were hanged in 1961.

Over the span of several years, Ataturk's party-state intervened in nearly all aspects of its citizens' lives. Parliament saw fit to address a diverse range of issues, including appropriate clothing and the shutting down of dervish lodges and similar religious establishments. At the same time, the government moved to take firm control over the country's territory, often employing fierce tactics to do so. In the brutal suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in 1938, thousands of Kurdish resisters were killed. The regime's ideological foundations, having being agreed upon in 1931 by party members, entered the Constitution in 1937. These pillars of Kemalist ideology came to be known as the "six arrows" (republicanism, reformism, secularism, statism, nationalism, and popularism). Although Inonu took over the duties of CHP chairman and state premier following Ataturk's death in 1938, the single-party era would not come to an end until Allied victory in World War II.

Twenty Years of Chaos: Violent Ideological Confrontation, 1960–1980

The two decades that followed the 1960 coup d'état were marked by an ongoing (and often violent) conflict between leftist and right-wing groups, as well as a series of weak coalition governments that failed to assert state authority in an increasingly troubled political atmosphere. Reflecting the interests of the army's division that had toppled the DP-led government, a 1961 Constitution granted extended rights to labor unions and permitted political activism, a development that would contribute to the emergence of radical politics. However, through the introduction of a Constitutional Court and other institutional mechanisms, the armed forces retained their authority over civilian politics to such an extent that, in 1971, the military elite was able to force the government into resigning through the mere threat of an intervention. With the level of violence threatening the country's political stability, the armed forces–acting with Cold War-era considerations—orchestrated a coup d'état on September 12, 1980, that included widespread atrocities against arrested activists from across the political spectrum.

Army Tutelage and the Neoliberal Security State

The 1980 coup brought with it a number of changes across state institutions. Once the army's top ranks assumed control of the government, political activism was suppressed. In 1982, a referendum on a new Constitution was paired with the presidential election; a vote for the Constitution was also a vote for military Chief-of-Staff Kenan Evren, who ran unopposed. The measure passed, and Evren became president. Although competitive elections were held the following year, Evren's presidency until 1989 illustrated the military's weight over the political system. In the meantime, Turgut Özal's Anavatan Partisi (ANAP) ushered in a neoliberal economic policy that privatized state enterprises in an attempt to steer the country away from its statist past.

This trend continued throughout the 1990s. Economic liberals such as Tansu Çiller began liquidating state assets in part to provide funding against the anti-government campaigns of the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan). At the same time, the decade was characterized by suspicious "disappearances" and unsolved assassinations of political activists. The corrupt alliance between Kurdish power brokers, the mafia, and mainstream politics was revealed to the public in 1997, when a parliamentarian from the coalition government, a government hitman, and the head of a police academy died in a car accident. The following year, the military forced out the coalition government after the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), led by Necmettin Erbakan, refused to cooperate in an operation to cleanse known Islamists from public offices and the armed forces.

The final chapter of the country's post-1980 history was marked by the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 and the subsequent electoral victory by incumbent Bülent Ecevit, of the Democratic Leftist Party (Demokratik Sol Parti). Ecevit formed a coalition government with the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi), and Anavatan Partisi, the center-right party. Although the government had popular support, the stock market crash of 2001, followed by Prime Minister Ecevit's deteriorating health, resulted in early parliamentary elections in 2002, as all three coalition partners failed to reach the 10 percent threshold required to gain parliamentary representation. It was under these extraordinary circumstances that former Welfare Party member Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi) won 34 percent of the vote, making it the first party in decades to form a single-party government.

The AKP years, 2002-Present

The AKP's electoral victory caught the public by surprise. Suspicious that the party had a secret agenda to demolish the secular order and replace it with an Islamic Republic, Erdogan's proponents–including members of the bureaucracy's higher echelons–assumed a defensive stance, vehemently opposing the government's reform agenda that was also supported by the European Union. The turning point occured in 2007, when secularist hardliner Ahmet Necdet Sezer's presidential term ended.Though the Erdogan government backed Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's presidential bid, and he was elected by Parliament, he was opposed by the military, who objected to his wife's practice of wearing a religious headscarf (hijab). On April 27, the military issued an online statement emphasizing their role as the political system's guardians.

Having been forced out of power as a member of the Welfare Party in 1997, Erdogan called for early elections, ultimately forcing the military to retreat after securing nearly 47 percent of the vote. Months later, the Constitution was amended to allow the people to directly elect the President. At the same time, the AKP challenged the military's self-proclaimed guardian role by bringing alleged coup-plotters to trial. With his party entering into its third term, and after claiming 50 percent of the vote, Erdogan continues to justify his reform agenda within the context of democracy and a normalization of civilian-military relations. AKP's opponents, however, accuse the party of establishing an authoritarian Islamic regime.

Further Reading

  • Zürcher, Erik Jan. Turkey: A Modern History. London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Ahmad, Feroz. The Making of Modern Turkey. London; New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Ungor, Ugur Umit. The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913–50. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Hanioğlu, M. Şükrü. Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Azak, Umut. Islam and Secularism in Turkey: Kemalism, Religion and the Nation State. London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010.
  • Marcus, Aliza. Blood and Belief: the PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
  • Öktem, Kerem. Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989. London; New York: Zed Books, 2011.
  • Yavuz, M. Hakan (ed). The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006.
  • Hale, William M., and Ergun Ozbudun. Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey: the Case of the AKP. London; New York: Routledge, 2010.

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