The Turkish Republic was
born from the disastrous World War
I defeat of the Ottoman
Ottoman war hero Mustafa Kemal
Pasha (later called Atatürk)
fled Istanbul to Anatolia in 1919,
organized the remnants of the Ottoman
army into an effective fighting force,
and rallied the people to the nationalist
By 1923 the nationalist government
had driven out the invading armies,
abolished the Ottoman Empire, promulgated
a republican constitution,
and established Turkey's new capital
The new government carried out drastic
reforms in order to bring
medieval Ottoman society into the
20th century. Polygamy was
abolished, women were granted
equal status with men before
the law (which included the right
to vote), government and religion
were separated, the Arabic alphabet
was replaced with the Latin
alphabet for written Turkish. Fez
and veil were outlawed,
and European dress put in their place.
great pains to establish democratic
institutions, but it was difficult
to teach democracy to a people who
had been ruled by an absolute
monarch for 600 years. Until
Atatürk's death in 1938, Turkey
was a one-party state under
Atatürk's Republican People's
Party (RPP) with one undisputed leader.
Upon the founder's death, his place
at the head of the party and the nation
was taken by his comrade-in-arms General Ismet
Inönü, another hero
of the War of Independence. Following
Atatürk's advice, Inönü preserved
Turkey's precarious neutrality during
World War II, figuring that the war
could only end in disaster for Turkey.
Between 1946 and 1950 multi-party
elections were held, and
Inönü's RPP ceded power
to the Democrat Party (DP)
and its charismatic Peron-style leader, Adnan
Menderes. Like Peron, by
1960 Menderes had the government
entirely in his control and democracy
The Turkish armed forces, charged
by Atatürk with the task of protecting
and preserving Turkish democracy,
stepped in, ousted Menderes and put
the country under martial law. Menderes
and other top government officials
were tried and convicted of
subverting Turkish democracy.
Many were sentenced to death, but all
death sentences were commuted except
that of Menderes, who was hanged.
The army withdrew, elections were
held in 1961, and the Democratic
Party, successor to Menderes's
Democrat Party, won. By 1970 the party
had subverted democratic norms again
to the point where the army
again stepped in, ousted the
leadership, and held new elections.
The Cyprus crisis and
the oil crisis of
the 1970s hit Turkey particularly hard.
With the economy a shambles and its
communist neighbors sending in agents
society destabilized into near civil
war. Leftist and rightist
factions carried out several dozen
murders daily. By 1980 most Turks were
ready for the army to step in, which
it did on September 12. By 1983 a new
constitution was in place, elections
were held, and the army went back to
The new Motherland Party (MP),
headed by a World Bank economist named Turgut Özal,
won the elections, defeating the parties
favored by the military caretakers. Özal
liberalized Turkey's restrictive economic
policies, leading to a boom
in commerce, industry and tourism.
Ironically, Kurdish separatist
terrorism became a big problem
during Özal's time as prime
minister and president—Özal
was proud that he had both Turkish
and Kurdish ancestors.
Tens of thousands of Turks, Kurds,
soldiers, terrorists and innocents
died during two decades of conflict
instigated by the PKK (Kurdistan
Özal died unexpectedly (some say mysteriously) in 1993,
leaving a power vacuum in Turkish politics. Unstable
coalition governments boiled
and burbled until the divisive elections
of December 1995 when the Islamist Welfare Party came to power
with a mere 21% of the vote. The Islamists
soon pushed their religious agenda
too hard, and the army told them to
leave in the interests of secular government.
More unstable coalitions ruled until
the moderately Islamist Justice
and Development Party (AKP)
won a parliamentary majority in 2002.
Former Istanbul mayor Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan, became prime
minister, and in 2007 his close ally
Abdullah Gül became president,
solidifying the AKP's hold on power.
Although unapologetically Islamist
in their personal lives and in some
aspects of their political philosophy,
the AKP leaders frequently express
their support for Turkey's traditional
secular state and the separation of
state and religion.
With a stable, majority government in Ankara after so many years of unstable coalitions, the Turkish economy thrived, and to the essential political question "Are you better off now than you were before?" most Turks would answer "Yes!"
Part of the AKP's success came from vigorous large-scale construction projects: new housing, better highways, an ambitious high-speed train network and more. In 2013, the construction boom hit a snag when Taksim Gezi Parkı, one of the few green spaces in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, was slated for destruction in order to build a mammoth shopping and office complex, as well as a mosque—or so rumor had it.
A peaceful sit-in to protest destruction of the trees was met with a vigorous police response which ended in violence and triggered demonstations in other cities as well. The government's response was defiance rather than conciliation, and the essential division of the Turkish political landscape between secularist and Islamist factions came to the fore.
In December 2013, a struggle for influence between the AKP and the Cemaat (or Hizmet, Service) movement led by Islamic scholar and preacher Fetullah Gülen came into public view, leading to disruptions and dislocations in Turkey's law-enforcement and judicial organizations.
Local elections held in March 2014 confirmed the AKP's continued primacy, and in August, AKP leader and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first President of the Turkish Republic elected by popular vote (51.78%) rather than by vote in the legislature, as had been the case since the foundation of the republic in 1923.
A forceful leader by personality and political acumen, Erdoğan has stated that his ambition is to transform the Turkish presidency from a mostly ceremonial office to one of extensive powers similar to that held by Charles de Gaulle in France (1959-1969).
For an insightful summary of Turkey's
foreign and domestic policies in recent
decades, read Scott Ritter's essay
"The Not-So-Sick Man of Europe Does