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
Birth of the Turkish Republic
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 İsmet
İnönü, another hero
of the War of Independence. Following
Atatürk's advice, İnönü 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
İnönü'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.
Troubles of the 1970s
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.
Although the army intervention was welcomed at first as heralding a return to civil order, the military-backed government instituted harsh measures: 1,633,000 Turks—many of whom were liberal writers, publishers and intellectuals—were blacklisted, with 650,000 detained and 210,000 prosecuted. 6,353 were tried on capital charges, 517 sentenced to death, and 50 eventually hanged; but 299 people lost their lives in prison, 171 of them while being tortured.
The left of the political spectrum was decimated. Many with liberal leanings learned not to express their opinions in public. This may have helped prepare the political field for the conservative reaction of later years.
By 1983 a new
constitution was in place, elections
were held, and the army went back to
barracks, but preserved power controls in the political process.
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
Unstable Coalition Governments
Özal died unexpectedly (some say suspiciously) 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 ordered them to
leave in the interests of secular government.
Justice & Development Party
More unstable coalitions ruled until
the moderate 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 was elected president by the Grand National Assembly (Turkey's parliament),
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 expressed
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, government policies were stabilized, competent experts put in charge, and the Turkish economy thrived. To the essential political question "Are you better off now than you were before?" most Turks began to 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.
Gezi Park Incident
The first dark cloud over the long construction boom came in 2013 when Taksim Gezi Parkı, one of the few green spaces in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, was slated for destruction in order to build yet another 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 joined by disruptive radical elements and 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.
The "Parallel State"
The worldwide Cemaat (or Hizmet, Service) movement, led by Islamic scholar and TV preacher Fetullah Gülen had long worked in concert with Erdoğan and the AKP to promote Islam in both society and government, in Turkey and indeed throughout the world.
In December 2013 a struggle for influence between the AKP and Cemaat came into public view. The government claimed that Cemaat had infiltrated its devotees into Turkey's law-enforcement and judicial organizations in order to influence, and even control, government policies and actions. In effect, setting up a "parallel state," according to the AKP.
Considering this intolerable, the AKP government carried out extensive purges of officers and officials in the police, security forces and judiciary, replacing suspected "Gülenists" with those loyal to the AKP.
In 2014 Turkey held its first direct elections for the office of president and, not surprisingly, popular former Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan, who had led the Justice and Development Party to electoral victories for a decade, was elected to the office with 51.78% of the vote.
According to the Turkish constitution, the republic's president is not head of government but head of state, a non-political office "above politics," similar to the positions of the monarch in England or the president of Israel. The president's role is to be a counsellor to all parties and arbitor for the interests of the nation as a whole.
President Erdoğan has intrepreted the role differently, and has taken an active and, some would say clearly partisan stance in many matters of public policy and society.
Elections scheduled for July 7, 2015 may determine the political direction of the Turkish state for years to come.
President Erdoğan is a vigorous proponent of a new Turkish constitution to replace the one imposed by the military government of 1980. While many across the political spectrum agree that a new constitution may be a good thing, some oppose the "presidential system" plan that President Erdoğan advocates, seeing it as a threat to the separation and balance of powers which is the guiding principle of modern democratic constitutions.
If the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gains a sufficient number of seats in the parliament, Turkey's system of government may be radically modified and, opponents fear, an era of one-party (even one-man) government may follow. However, it is not clear that the AKP will obtain the required seats, or that the changes foreseen will occur even if it does.