May 1, 2014
A Struggle for Power
By Osman Can
Reporting Judge, Turkish Constitutional Court

As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to deal with challenges to his political authority, jurist Osman Can argues that Turkey’s political dynamic is animated by the struggle for power between Erdoğan and Turkey’s old elite.

Local elections on March 30, which had a 90 percent participation rate, have been seen as a vote of confidence for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. With 45.6 percent of the votes, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which has been in power since 2002 – triumphed once more. In order to grasp the formula of Erdoğan’s success, one should look at Turkish history and analyze the social dynamics.

Turkey is the successor of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after World War I. Military officials and political elites, who were influenced by the fascism and National Socialism that were dominant in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, shaped the constitutional order of the young republic.

Erdoğan regarded the consolida- tion of democracy as a starting point for opposing the old elite.

Those elites had a vision for Turkey, and in order to create the individual and society suited to that vision, they designed a strictly centralized constitutional order. They rejected the principle of separation of powers and turned an ethnocentric ideology into the official ideology of the country. They ignored identities that did not fit their vision, and tried to assimilate the ones they could not ignore.

Since then, the social base that was furnished by the privileges these elites provided has been both the founder and the defender of that exclusionist constitutional order. The economic system was designed to be exclusionist as well so that the constitutional order could endure. Political elites produced the economic elites, who provided the support they needed.

Erdoğan regarded the consolidation of democracy as a starting point for opposing the old elite. His party emerged as a political movement and has become the voice of the majority of Turkish society. It translated the demands and concerns of this majority into a political program without sacrificing the principles of democracy. Much of the support for Erdoğan is thus a reaction to the old political elites and their allies.

There are those who do not belong to the AKP’s traditional social base but have faced the consequences of the old regime’s policies and support Erdoğan’s political stance on democratization and change. Among them are many people from the Kurdish opposition who favor an ethnic Kurdish policy.

In this context, Erdoğan emerged as one who can gather support from different segments of society that are in favor of change. The results of Turkey’s elections since 2002 show that while the AKP has been supported in all regions of the country, the support for the opposition bloc formed by the old political elites has been limited to western coastal cities, which are populated mainly by middle- and high-income citizens.

Including the Kurdish political movement, more than 80 percent of the country rejects the ideological, cultural, and political preferences of the old political elite. Meanwhile, the AKP’s recent election victory demonstrates that there is strong support for its political stance. It seems likely that the AKP will be in office for the foreseeable future.

Inclusive economic policies have invigora- ted the demand for an inclusive political order.

Liberal economic policies and structural reforms implemented in the last 30 years, especially under AKP rule, have resulted in dramatic changes in Turkish society. The rate of urbanization has reached the European average and mobilization of commodities and services has increased dramatically. Turkey is also now closer to the European standards in terms of education and health services.

Furthermore, GNP per capita has increased significantly and the state has been able to focus more on macro politic issues since it is less involved in economic activities thanks to privatization. For the first time in Turkish history, the principle of the social welfare state has been realized.

Inclusive economic policies have invigorated the demand for an inclusive political order. Realizing that this would change the balance of power, the old political elites have plotted coups and tried to use the judiciary to eliminate the AKP. Each time, however, the AKP has managed to defeat them via elections or referenda.

While the old political elites have endeavored to block democratic politics, supporters of democracy have begun to question the legitimacy of the old political elites. All elections and legal struggles following these developments have been a reflection of the tension caused by the changes in Turkey’s political institutions.

Interestingly, this background of the developments in Turkey has not found a place in the Western media. Instead, the media has set up a simple dichotomy, depicting an authoritarian prime minister and an opposition fighting for freedom. It has presented the situation as a struggle between those who have a modern, Western lifestyle and those who do not. This is a deficient, one-sided, and weak analysis.

It does not seem possible to provide a solid analysis of Turkish politics as long as the situation is depicted in this way. A good start would be to realize that terms like “liberal,” “modern,” and “secular” do not necessarily mean “democracy” in places like Turkey. In fact, they have the potential to represent anti-democratic practices. Once people begin to understand this, a reasonable analysis of Turkey’s elections might be possible, and those who were surprised by the election results may begin to see things differently.

Osman CanOsman Can is Reporting Judge on the Turkish Constitutional Court. He was named "Jurist of the Year" by Turkey's Jurists' Association in 2010.