BACKGROUND: From its founding in 2001 and until very recently, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) benefited from the backing of Turkey’s liberal intelligentsia. As Turkey has slid back toward its old authoritarianism, liberal intellectuals have started to reflect on what it was that made them perceive of the AKP as a liberal hope.
One of these, Nuray Mert, a political scientist and pundit, recently remarked that the fundamental mistake of the liberals and other democrat was that they saw Turkish politics in binary terms, as defined exclusively by a tug of war of the military and civilians, which misled them to see the AKP as a democratic promise simply because it represented a challenge to the regime of military tutelage.
The actions of the military, especially the infamous so called e-memorandum of 2007, in which the then Chief of the General Staff Yaşar Büyükanıt expressed his opposition to the election of Abdullah Gül as president, certainly helped sustain the perception of a tug of war between the forces of authoritarianism, represented by the generals, and those of democracy, in the shape of the AKP.
In fact, historically, the military and the civilian, rightist governments that have governed Turkey continuously – but for a brief period during the 1970s when the country had a social democratic government – have not represented opposing poles with regard to democratic rights and freedoms; on the contrary, they have both worked to limit rights and freedoms. The political right and the military have been united in their determination not to allow the left any space, in their opposition to labor rights, and resistance to the aspirations of the Kurds and other minorities. Yet the liberals – and many other democrats as well – expected the AKP to be a different kind of rightist party, one that although socially and culturally conservative, was nonetheless going to spearhead democratization. The AKP was expected to behave like a democratic reformist bourgeois party because unlike its predecessors of the right, it was deemed to represent an “authentic bourgeoisie.” However, the liberals not only read too much into the AKP as a bourgeois party. They also invested too much hope in the “authenticity” of the said bourgeoisie, as the new middle class in the conservative heartland of Turkey came to be defined.
Many shared the exuberance of leading liberal/leftist intellectual Ömer Laçiner who after the AKP’s landslide in the 2007 parliamentary election wrote that “The AKP’s election victory shows us that Turkey has experienced a true bourgeois revolution. Turkey’s authentic bourgeoisie has emerged victorious from its century-old struggle against the military and civilian bureaucracy.” In a similar vein Fatma Müge Göçek, a sociologist, in a recent interview said that “the emergence of the AKP represented a significant step toward democratization because it meant that people who had been excluded by the system were included in it and because the supremacy of the state was broken.” However, in reality, the new owners of the state showed no interest in dismantling its power and, as she points out, “those whom had I had expected were going to protect the oppressed, as they themselves had experienced oppression, instead used this to accumulate power.”
The military may have been reduced to playing a subservient role under the AKP regime, but the statist ideology to which the military, conservatives and secularists alike have traditionally adhered remains unchallenged. The bill that the AKP government introduced this week, and which accords new, almost unlimited powers to the security forces and which makes individuals even more vulnerable to arbitrary state power than what is already the case, is but the latest expression of this.
IMPLICATIONS: The liberal expectations on the AKP and on its social base were grounded in what is a historically correct observation: forces, namely the bourgeoisie – or the middle class – that in the Western context in many cases have been democratic agents and which have succeeded in defeating state authoritarianism (as for example was the case in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1970s) have not performed a similar role in Turkey.
The Turkish bourgeoisie was the creation of the state, which created a business class to serve the interests of the state, and this class has subsequently refrained from challenging the state and its authoritarianism. “Turkish businessmen are conscious that they owe not only their wealth, but also their societal position to the state,” writes historian Ayşe Buğra in her study “The State and the Businessmen.” Buğra notes that “success in business depends above all on the relation that the businessman entertains with the state.”
Indeed, the bourgeoisie of the Turkish republic was not only a creation of the state, but even more importantly, it was to a considerable extent the end-product of a state crime. It was the confiscation of the wealth and property of the non-Muslims of the Ottoman Empire who had either been killed or expelled that provided the dowry of the new, Muslim Turkish business class. Many have suggested that the complicity in crime created a lasting bond of solidarity between bourgeoisie and state, ensuring the lasting fealty of the former to the latter. More recently, fear of the left ensured that the bourgeoisie lent its support to state oppression. One of the founding members of The Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen (TÜSİAD) related that the main objective of the founders of TÜSİAD was to seek protection against the threat of the left, and that “in this effort, it was natural to be aligned with the state and the military.”
However, the 1970s, the heyday of the Turkish left, also saw the beginning of a change of the political attitudes of the bourgeoisie: As had happened in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and in Chile and Argentina, middle class youth rallied to the left. If the military coup in 1980 had not intervened, crushing the left, a broad, social democratic, bourgeois-working class alliance might well have materialized. Instead, the oppression of the military dictatorship ensured that bourgeois youth became utterly de-politicized; and the combination of the destruction of the left and the pro-Islamic policies of the military regime succeeded in making Islamist parties the main recipient of the working class vote from the middle of the 1990s onward.
Yet the economic liberalization that was undertaken during the 1980s, which integrated Turkey into the global economy, kindled hopes about a bourgeois revolution. During the 1990s, liberal views came to be expressed by members of the Turkish business community. Cem Boyner, a prominent businessman, attracted much attention when he started a political party, The Movement for New Democracy (YDH) in 1993. Although ultimately politically unsuccessful, the movement was nonetheless intellectually influential among the Istanbulite bourgeoisie, and served as an inspiration for liberal think-tanks. TÜSİAD members took to publishing reports that challenged the system of state authoritarianism, calling for democracy and minority rights; tellingly however, one such initiative in 1997 was strongly reproved by Rahmi Koç, the leading industrialist of Turkey, and other business barons. Despite some promising attempts to emancipate, the traditional bourgeoisie remained wedded to the state and its authoritarianism.
Instead, as the 1990s drew to a close, liberal and other democratic intellectuals began to hope that another bourgeoisie, in the Anatolian heartland that had prospered since the 1980s, was going to provide democratic salvation. This was the middle class, which was later named the “Anatolian Calvinists,” that provided the main support for the AKP. It was deemed to be “authentic,” in contrast to its Istanbulite equivalent because it was self-made; these businessmen had prospered not thanks to state tenders, but by successfully competing on global markets. Thus they did not owe the state any gratitude and could be expected to push for a roll-back of state power.
In reality, the bourgeois revolution was never to be. The “Anatolian Calvinists” did not see the state as an obstacle, once their political party had conquered it. The state remains as economically determinant as ever, and the self-made men of Anatolia have had to adapt to the rules of crony capitalism, just like the bourgeoisie of Istanbul always has known to abide by the rules of state capitalism.
Yet the Anatolian business community is known to be uncomfortable with the authoritarian drift of the AKP regime. It is for instance not a coincidence that the moderate stance of former president Abdullah Gül resonates among these circles that have a vested interest in maintaining good relations with the outside world.
CONCLUSIONS: It is a widely held assumption that the growth of the middle class paves the way for democratization as this class demands more freedom and government accountability. Historian John Gray points out that this is effectively a restatement of Karl Marx’ account of the historical role of the bourgeoisie. However, the political record of the middle classes is in fact mixed. The case of Turkey stands as an example that bourgeoisie and state authoritarianism can also be mutually reinforcing.
Turkey is going to have to wait for the emergence of a force or forces that have an interest in, and are capable of, taming the state.
Halil M. Karaveli is a Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Joint Center.
(Image Attribution: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)