History of the Turkish Republic

The Turkish Republic was born from the disastrous World War I defeat of the Ottoman Empire.

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 cause.

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 in Ankara.

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.

Atatürk took 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.

Multi-Party Politics

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 was threatened.

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 provocateurs, Turkish 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.

Economic Progress

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 Workers’ Party).

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 IslamistWelfare 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.

Economic Boom

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.

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 Gülenhad 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.

2014 Elections

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.

The president’s term is five years, with eligibility for re-election to one more term.

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.

2015 Elections

Parliamentary elections held on June 7, 2015 changed Turkey’s political landscape substantially. The traditionally Kurdish-centered HDP party received enough votes (12%) to pass the constitutional 10%-minimum threshold and to enter parliament.

Because of Turkey’s complicated parliamentary apportionment system and the relative electoral success of the opposition parties, the AKP lost its absolute majority in the Grand National Assembly. No minority or coalition government was formed following the elections, so President Erdoğan called for new elections for November 1, 2015 in the hope that his favored AKP party might again achieve a parliamentary majority and form a one-party government. In a remarkable comeback, his hopes were fulfilled: the AKP received half of all the votes cast, giving it a clear majority in parliament and returning the government to one-party rule.

Constitutional Referendum

On April 16, 2017, Turkey held a referendum on revising the Turkish constitution to grant more powers to the executive branch, including more presidential control over the legislative and judicial branches—a form of government termed a “presidential system.”

In effect, the presidency would be the most powerful branch of government by far, giving one person substantial control of the government.

Results of the referendum showed the country nearly equally divided between those in favor of the presidential system and those opposed. The “Yes” votes were 51.4%, the “No” votes 48.6%, denying either faction a strong popular mandate, but beginning the process toward the presidential system.

The constitutional changes are set to take effect with the presidential elections of August 2019 unless parliament calls new elections before that date.

—Tom Brosnahan


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