Monday, 07 March 2011

Turkey Remains an "Angry Nation" But Could Still Serve as a Democratic Inspiration

Published in Articles

By Kerem Öktem (vol. 4, no. 5 of the Turkey Analyst)

Turkey remains an “Angry nation”, tormented by the many ghosts of its history, some of which still lurk in the shadows. Its political system is characterized by deep polarization, and it is by no means certain that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will go on to dismantle the edifice of state tutelage bequeathed by the “guardians” who have now been put on the defensive as never before in the history of the republic. Yet even if the country’s immediate prospects remain ambiguous, the people of Turkey have nonetheless used the ballot box several times to successfully defy authoritarianism and military diktats. That deserves to serve as an inspiration for others in the Middle East. 

BACKGROUND: In these days of revolutions in the Arab world, Turkey would probably not be the first country to come to mind when talking about an ‘Angry Nation’. With a rapidly growing economy, a massively expanding middle class, a more or less stable democratic regime that has found ways of accommodating political Islam into mainstream politics and an increasingly self-confident foreign policy, Turkey would appear to be a model.  Yet, despite a decade of rapid development, despite newly polished and rebuilt cities, injustice, exploitation, state brutality and memories of torture and maltreatment  continue to shape the consciousness of the country.

In the 1990s, Turkey was effectively waging a civil war in its Kurdish southeast, a war in which close to 40,000 died. Since the early 1980s, millions of ethnic Kurds were forced to flee their villages and ended up in the poor suburbs of Istanbul, Izmir and further afield. Just two decades ago, Kurdish, the mother tongue of close to 15 million citizens of the Turkish Republic, was officially forbidden.

Without due appreciation of the causes, actors and consequences of the military takeover in 1980, Turkey in the 1990s and 2000s would make little sense. The brutal coup was a most significant rupture in Turkey’s recent history. It came close to creating, for a second time in a century – the first being the proclamation of the republic in 1923 – a tabula rasa. The military rulers stayed in power until 1983, but retained their grip on the political system well into our days. With all political movements, whether of socialist, Islamist or nationalist persuasion outlawed in 1980, political leaders incarcerated, tens of thousands of activists fleeing the country and hundreds of thousands of citizens being tortured in the prisons, the generals had a free hand to shape the direction of political and economic developments of the decades to come. Ironically, the IMF-supported mix of neo-liberal restructuring on the one side and the chauvinist new hegemonic ideology of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis on the other eventually also created the conditions of their contestation and eventual demise. The first challenge to the generals came with the elections of 1983, when the people of Turkey voted for the only party that was not actively endorsed by the generals, and brought to power Prime Minister Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party (ANAP). Özal facilitated the emergence of a pious but hardworking middle class and followed a pro-active foreign policy that anticipated the policies of the current government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The guardian state, best described as a triangle with the armed forces at the top end, and the high judiciary and bureaucracy working at its lower ends, have for decades ensured that elected governments did not steer away from the status-quo of a tightly controlled security state, where key policy areas like minority and human rights were kept off limits to elected governments. The guardian state was empowered during times of the military interventions of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, and it was challenged and sometimes weakened during strong civilian govern­ments. Those of the Democrat Party under Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, the rule of the Motherland Party and Turgut Özal in the 1980s and the Justice and Development Party government of the 2000s stand out.

In the times in between, fragile coalition governments fell under the spell of the guardians’ manipulations, and failed to establish control over escalating political unrest, often instigated by the guardians in the first place, to perpetuate their hegemony. These are, in fact, classical modes of governance employed by authoritarian regimes: We have recently seen the thugs paid by the Mubarak regime, who attacked the demonstrators on Tahrir square. The core difference, however, is that Turkey has not been a dictatorship since 1950, but a multi-party system, in which people’s electoral choices really did make a difference. Hence the guardian state’s particularly sinister and clandestine nature.


IMPLICATIONS: Indeed, many of the political twist and turns in the country’s history since 1980 can be traced back to the conspiracies of the guardian state, from the massive brutalization of Kurds and political activists and the series of political assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s, to more recent events where its involvement is alleged, such as the slaying of Christian priests in 2006 and the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.  However, too much has changed in Turkish society and the underlying social and economic processes are too powerful to be subverted by a coalition of actors intent on regime preservation: the new conservative middle classes have been emboldened under the AKP government. They have changed the appearance and outlook of hitherto isolated small towns. Today, cities like Kayseri, Denizli or Gaziantep might strike the visitor as socially conservative and religiously observant, yet also as efficient and wealthy: Shopping malls, international hotel chains and posh, if mostly tee-total, restaurants abound. Most importantly, these cities sport industrial zones and thousands of small and medium sized companies, which operate globally.

Anyone who has witnessed Istanbul’s exit from the state of pervasive melancholy, which Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk so brilliantly has captured, to become the thrilling metropolis it is today – the many urban conflicts created by gentrification and rent-maximisation notwithstanding – would be hard pressed to shed tears for times gone by. The cultural vibrancy, which Istanbul exuded throughout its turn as ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2010, re-established it firmly as a European city. New high-rises, reconstructed historical buildings, traffic infrastructure, metros and fast trains are increasingly displacing the drab concrete blocks of the 1960s and 70s and the bus-dependent transport system, which had shaped the modern city’s physiognomy until recently.

In addition to the contestation between guardians and elected representatives and remarkable economic development, another constant fixture of Turkey’s recent past is its relation with the European Union. Turkey’s Europeanization got a considerable boost in 2005 with the start of accession negotiations with the EU. The expansion of human and minority rights and the deepening of the rule of law of first years of the AKP government owed much to the ‘European anchor’, but recent events have rendered this ‘anchor’ almost obsolete. The European rejection has been partly compensated by a more intensive engagement with Turkey’s eastern neighbours and the Middle East. Despite its growing role as a regional power, however, the question arises whether further democratisation is a credible prospect without the commitment of European institutions.

The enormous changes in Turkish society have coincided with and have been reinforced by the Islamic conservative government of the AKP since 2002. Yet, they are underwritten by political conflicts, which have been shaped in the preceding decades. And by no means are the manipulations and policies guided by” state reason” over. The struggle between elected representatives and the guardians of the state is continuing. Currently, it increasingly looks as if the stakes are too high for a smooth resolution. It remains to be seen whether the AKP will be able to push the guardian state back and guarantee civilian control over the state and its institutions – and hence potentially clear the way for a liberal democracy – or whether it will, like some of its predecessors, use the confrontation to settle its scores and perpetuate its own grip on power. The latter outcome would probably not be  surprising. After all, as  historian Margaret Macmillan has recently remarked  with regard to the great transformations of the last century, ‘[h]ow often have we seen revolutionaries, committed to building new worlds, slip back unconsciously into the habits and ways of those they have replaced?’

CONCLUSIONS: Turkey remains tormented by the many ghosts of its history, some of which still lurk in the shadows. Its political system is characterized by deep polarization, and it is by no means certain that the ruling AKP will go on to dismantle the edifice of state tutelage bequeathed by the guardians who have been put on the defensive as never before in the history of the republic. Yet, and despite all the simmering anger – which in turn is also a heritage of the rule of the guardians, who for so long managed to safeguard their hold on power by pitting different parts of society against each other, there might nonetheless be one source of inspiration: Turks and Kurds have made no revolutions on squares and streets.

Istanbul’s Taksim square or Diyarbakir’s streets have hosted demonstrations, which toppled no one but were often brutally suppressed. Some of the constituent moments in modern Turkish history – the proclamation of the constitution of 1908, the foundation of the republic in 1923 and of course the subsequent coups – were all overthrows of governments by members of the military elites. These momentous changes did not come about as the result of popular revolutions. Yet, the people of Turkey have nevertheless significantly changed the country’s fortunes thrice, in 1950, in 1983 and in 2002, when they elected parties that were opposed by the state guardians.

Even if the country’s immediate prospects remain ambiguous and the absence of a credible social democratic opposition a major impediment to a democratic evolution, the notion of the ballot box as a place, where history can be made, deserves to serve as an inspiration for the newly emerging and hopefully democratic regimes in the Arab world.

Kerem Öktem of St Antony’s College, Oxford, is the author of “Angry Nation – Turkey since 1989” which is published this week. The article is an introduction of the main themes of the book.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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