BACKGROUND: On January 22, Cansen Başaran Symes was elected as the new president of TÜSİAD. Başaran Symes is the third woman to lead the most significant – in economic terms – Turkish business association. The members of TÜSİAD employ nearly fifty percent of the Turkish workforce, if the public sector employees and the agricultural workforce are excluded. When energy imports are excluded, the TÜSİAD member companies account for eighty percent of Turkey’s foreign trade.
However, the combined economic power that is represented by TÜSİAD no longer translates into a corresponding political influence. The tensions between TÜSİAD and the political leadership have become palpable during the last two years, and tellingly not a single representative of the political leadership was present when the new president of TÜSİAD was elected.
The direction that Turkey has taken under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly a cause for concern for the members of TÜSİAD. The outgoing president of the association, Halûk Dinçer, gave voice to these concerns in his farewell speech: “Politics does not interfere with peoples’ private lives and their spiritual worlds. What it does is that it guarantees these and their liberties. I believe that we today need to defend the principles of equal citizenship, gender equality and secularism with all the force that we can muster.”
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power, the business community that TÜSİAD represents welcomed it; it did so even though in cultural and social terms the industrialists and businessmen of TÜSİAD hail from milieus and backgrounds that set most of them apart from the conservatives of the AKP. Broadly speaking, they are part of the Western-oriented Turkish bourgeoisie, mostly centered in Istanbul, while the AKP has its base in the conservative, Anatolian heartland of Turkey. Yet the Istanbul business community was nonetheless encouraged by the promises of the AKP to move Turkey closer to the European Union and the party’s avowed determination to adhere to liberal economic policies in line with the expectations of international investors and monetary institutions.
Indeed, prominent business barons like the Turkish Jewish industrialist İshak Alaton lent active support to Erdoğan. Such business representatives were instrumental in securing support in prominent business and political circles in the West for the Islamists – who they assumed were no longer Islamists, something that they assured Western audiences of.
The media empire of Aydın Doğan, the father of TÜSİAD’s first female president and one of the leading Turkish business barons, firmly rallied behind the AKP during the party’s first five year term in office between 2002 and 2007. However, after 2007, the AKP government turned against Doğan, with an exorbitant tax fine that forced Doğan to sell off a large part of his media empire. (See January 18, 2010, Turkey Analyst) The AKP’s move against Doğan was part of a process of intra-class power redistribution, an expression of the determination of the AKP to ensure that the balance shifted within the bourgeoisie, from its secular Istanbul branch to the conservative Anatolian equivalent.
However, even though Doğan was downsized, the secular business community in general has continued to prosper under the rule of the AKP. Indeed, the policies of the AKP have been extremely business-friendly. Above all, the AKP has neutralized potential challenges to the neo-liberal economic political order by integrating the working class into the capitalist system. It has done so by making full use of identity politics; the exploitation of religion and of religious symbolism has ensured that the very notion of clashing class interests has remained banished from the political discourse. Religion has, in short, kept socialism at bay.
IMPLICATIONS: However, the interests of the business community that TÜSİAD represents are no longer as intimately aligned with the policies of the AKP as they used to be. In fact, these interests require a whole different model of capitalist development than the one that AKP regime is promoting. The clash in Turkey is thus no longer only a culture war, but a clash of capitalisms, between two different models of capitalism.
This is a point made by Ayşe Buğra, a professor of political economy at the Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and most recently the co-author of the study New Capitalism in Turkey. Buğra remarks that the different parts of the business community in Turkey have now come to defend diverging capitalist models of societal organization.
On one side are conservative businessmen that have prospered during the AKP’s time in power; on the other side is a bourgeoisie that has by now completed its capital accumulation. The former have not yet done so and are consequently still dependent on the support of the state, on securing state tenders – just like the latter, secular bourgeoisie used to be dependent on the state for many decades.
The group of businessmen that TÜSİAD represents insists on EU membership, and calls for the rule of law; it does so because its interests lie in a system where the state does not arbitrarily interfere in economic life. It was not a coincidence that the outgoing president of TÜSİAD felt the need to remind that the state is not supposed to interfere with the choices of individuals, being instead responsible for the protection of individual rights and freedoms.
However, as political economist Buğra points out, unlike the established, secular bourgeoisie whose companies have now reached a level of sophistication that enables them to compete successfully with the companies of advanced economies, the new entrepreneurs still depend on political support; they are opposed to a model of advanced capitalism where political interventions in the economic life are restricted by law and regulations.
While the material interests of the secular bourgeoisie potentially make it a force for democratization – as it favors the rule of law and EU membership – the material interests of the conservative bourgeoisie on the contrary work to sustain state authoritarianism. The new, conservative entrepreneurs are not competitive enough to thrive in business relations with well-developed Western economies; it is thus, as Buğra puts it, only logical that in light of their economic interests, they do not mind a political orientation that rejects the West. The secular bourgeoisie is politically oriented toward the West, precisely because that is where it stands to make economic gains.
The question is whether the existence of that material interest will encourage TÜSİAD to become an agent for democracy.
CONCLUSIONS: The historical record of TÜSİAD as an agent for democratization is not encouraging. When TÜSİAD was founded in 1971, it was as part of the effort of the business community to limit democracy. The military coup in 1971 and the founding of TÜSİAD the same year were both part of the same endeavor of the establishment to crush organized labor and the left in general. The business community and the military were allies in a joint struggle that aimed to limit democracy. TÜSİAD played a crucial role in the process that paved the way for the brutal military coup in 1980. In May 1979, TÜSİAD started a campaign of publicly calling for the ouster of the government of the social democratic Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. The campaign succeeded, precipitating the downfall of Ecevit.
The members of TÜSİAD are nowadays inclined to take a much more benevolent approach to the rights of labor. More high-value added production in their companies has made them more appreciative of the workforce norms and values that prevail in the Western, advanced capitalist context. The material interests of its members compels TÜSİAD to be a force for democratization. Yet it is by no means certain that the association will muster the force to defend the principles of equal citizenship, gender equality and secularism that its outgoing president Halûk Dinçer spoke about in his farewell speech. Doing that requires that TÜSİAD members break with a long tradition of bourgeois quietude and subservience to the state.
State power has always prevailed over business power in Turkey. In his memoirs, Vehbi Koç, the founder of Turkey’s leading industrial group, related a telling anecdote of how he had had no choice but to do as he was told when the conservative Democrat Party (DP) government in the 1950s demanded that he give up his membership in the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
The 1970s was the only time that the business community in Turkey mustered the “courage” to play an active role in politics, and that was unfortunately an act of class warfare that effectively helped bury democratic hopes in Turkey. The present, authoritarian AKP regime is the final outcome of that destructive endeavor.
In the 1970s, the business community was not afraid to attack the social democrat Bülent Ecevit; it knew that it had powerful allies in the state, not least in the military. Today, TÜSİAD has no allies in the state, and its members are terrified of Erdoğan, who bears no resemblance to the besieged democrat Ecevit. Instead of defending democracy, the secular business community could well hunker down and seek salvation in adjusting itself to a capitalist model that does not depend on closer relations with the West.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons)