To understand modern Turkey and its problems, one has to remember that the process of political modernization or Westernization began more than a century ago. Successive defeats beginning in 1718 taught the Turkish nation that its traditional social, political and economic system was inadequate for survival in the modern age. Turkey had to change. Hence the roots of many contemporary institutions can be traced back well into the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly after the Crimean War. The legal and administrative framework of present-day Turkey was laid down in that period. Modern transport and communications systems were introduced; railways, telegraphic communication and a postal system came into being. Compulsory primary education in modern schools, administrative and legal reforms, modern banking institutions and many other social foundations were also established prior to 1923.

However, all these efforts were superficial and insufficient to guarantee the survival of the Ottoman Empire. The piecemeal reforms failed to create a viable whole out of a decadent, multinational empire. The real modernization effort had to await the new Republic of 1923 to plant roots deep in the social fabric of Turkey. Kemal Atatürk was no less a radical social reformer in his approach to social change than his contemporary, Lenin. He was one of the frustrated young officers of the Ottoman army to whom the social change carried out by the Ottoman reformers seemed slow, inconsistent, piecemeal, hesitant and partial. For him, modernization required change that was comprehensive and revolutionary. As a social architect he attempted to change the life of the nation not only in schools, in offices, in factories, etc., but also in headwear, in family relationships, in language and in social customs.

Atatürk differed from Lenin, however, in several respects: he rejected ideology as a means of reconstructing Turkish society. His approach was empirical. He wanted to remold Turkish society according to Western European systems which were difficult to define in ideological terms because of their pluralistic character. He was an educated Turk, impressed by the French Revolution and influenced by the philosophers of the age of enlightenment. He was not a revolutionary brought up under the influence of Marxist teaching or a romantic admirer of those who fought the ruling classes at the barricades.

Further, the nation which Atatürk wished to reform had its own social structure and had passed through a special historical development. First, modernization in Turkey was initiated neither by a colonial power nor by foreign commercial interests, but by a national and indigenous élite. The early reformers of the Empire were the educated Ottomans trained for public service. "Young Ottomans" and "Young Turks" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were civil servants and army officers. Turkey experienced no colonial rule as did most of the emergent nations. Its long history as an independent sovereign state, and the ability of its own élite to introduce modern institutions into the country, helped it to develop a different pattern of social change. The spheres of life most affected in the early stages of modernization were the army, the administration and education. This enabled Turkey to transform itself in an orderly way, avoiding the pattern of some countries where the forces of modernization led first to chaos and then to violent revolution.

As the mere chronology of events shows, the process of change in Turkish history was gradual, from Tanzimat (the Reform of 1839) to 1946, when political democracy on the Western model was introduced; the disruption of traditional institutions and the diffusion of alien forms of culture and patterns of behavior occurred at a pace which permitted acceptance. Hence Turkey, in her path to modernization, managed to avoid civil war and violent revolution. The deep wounds of civil strife, of the magnitude of the French and Russian Revolutions or the Spanish Civil War, leave a residue of fear and bitterness and need a long time to heal. In Turkey, minor instances of violence have not injured the chances of reconciliation and restoration of an equilibrium between social change and social order. The fact that Atatürk at the height of his political power and prestige twice attempted to create parliamentary democracy with a multi-party system, in 1924 and 1931, is a case in point.

The homogeneous nature of the Republic, its lack of religious and racial minorities, helped to create a social environment in which it became possible to form a national purpose, something which the Ottoman Empire badly lacked. The structure of Turkish traditional society was itself a positive factor in the process of modernization. With no landed or feudal aristocracy comparable to Europe's, Turkey was a relatively unstratified society. The system of land tenure in the Ottoman Empire did not lend itself to the emergence of a ruling class whose power resided in its control of vast estates. The land belonged in theory to the Sultan and was partly entrusted to his agents for administrative and military purposes. This system provided more mobility and flexibility; the ruling and administrative classes in Turkish society did not create a separate caste far removed from the people and peasantry.

In the Republican era, the land-tenure system was further democratized by enabling the peasantry to appropriate land-holdings which originally belonged to the state and to religious foundations. According to the latest statistics, only one village family out of 11.4 has no land. This shows that the peasants, who constitute two-thirds of the population, are on the whole the landowning class. Absentee landlords do not constitute a national problem, as in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries, but a problem peculiar to certain regions, and requiring reform at a regional level.

Another leveling factor in Turkish society has been education, which has been available on the basis of merit. Education has not been exclusive, but has drawn on broad segments of society to recruit civil and military leaders.

These are some of the factors which favored Turkey's modernization. There were obstacles, too-some of them originating in the very nature of social change. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the process of modernization tended to create a dual society. A thin layer of people with a modern outlook had endless difficulties of mutual readjustment and coexistence with the larger body of traditional society. The process of disintegration of rural and traditional society caused serious tensions. The urban and educated classes were frustrated by the apathy of the peasant and his slow rate of progress. As a result, they developed authoritarian and paternalistic tendencies. Their consciousness of the immensity of the problems lying ahead pushed some of the intellectuals to radicalism and skepticism.

On the other hand, the people who had not been brought into the orbit of modernization developed a kind of hostility toward anything new and modern. Resistance at times became active, though it offered no serious challenge to the modernizers. The traditionalists were waging a losing battle. Fundamentalists and religious reactionaries have always existed in all Islamic countries, but in Turkey they have not been able to organize on a national scale as did the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other fanatical groups elsewhere in the Middle East. Their lack of organization and loss of confidence in the face of headlong change made them quite submissive to Atatürk's reforms.

II

In 1946 Turkey adopted universal suffrage with a multi-party system amidst much skepticism about the timing and wisdom of such a radical step. Many feared that the new forces unleashed would destroy the order and coherence that modern institutions had created. But Turkey met the test. The contending parties did not question the basis of Atatürk's reforms and mutually agreed to set limits to political controversy. The orderly change of government after a free election in 1950 was a unique experience for the Turkish nation. It was a remarkable demonstration of national political maturity and strengthened the people's self-confidence.

In 1960 civilian and democratic rule was interrupted by the military but was restored the following year after a new constitution had been drawn. Both the events preceding the military intervention and the political crisis after it have served to make us aware of the inherent weaknesses in our political institutions. Despite the fact that military intervention occurred at the worst moment of political crisis, it did not take too long for the public, including the military itself, to realize that the end of civilian rule created more problems than it solved. The leaders of the military régime soon grasped the fact that Turkey's problems were much too complicated to be susceptible to quick and simple solutions. Hence they were eager to return to representative government through elections and party politics. Subsequently, two attempts were made by radical and revolutionary groups within the military to establish a kind of military dictatorship, but both failed badly because of the reluctance of the overwhelming majority of the military to assume political responsibility.

Although universal suffrage and majority rule did not bring a head-on clash between the modern and traditional elements in the 1950-60 period, they created serious tensions. A kind of truce and modus vivendi established between opposing political groups was not effective enough to efface mutual suspicions. The charges of reaction leveled against the Democratic Party by the People's Republican Party (P.R.P.) after the change of power in 1950 continued uninterrupted until the 1960 military intervention. Under the Democratic Party, the government was regularly accused of administrative inefficiency, abuse of power, partisan treatment of citizens, the tyranny of the majority in the legislature, and disrespect for the rights of the minority.

Turkish intellectuals, who were largely Republicans, feared that under popular pressure the new political leaders might compromise the legacy of Atatürk and tolerate religious reaction against the reforms. Attacks against Atatürk's monuments by religious fanatics, widespread dissemination of publications critical of reforms and modernization, and the opening of unauthorized private religious schools in the countryside were seen by them as preliminaries to a restoration of a religiously oriented régime. The Democratic Party's attempts to curb civil rights, restrict academic freedom and limit the activity of the opposition further aroused the intelligentsia.

The countercharge of disrespect for the sovereignty of the people was hurled back by the Democrats against the Republicans. The Democratic Party did indeed enjoy strong popular support as a result of broadening participation by the people in public affairs. As a result of popular pressure for public services, the new Government undertook and accomplished many responsible tasks with perhaps less efficiency than one would wish, but with speed and continuity.

With the new constitution adopted in 1961, Turkey returned to civilian administration and parliamentary government. The new constitution reinforced the system of "checks and balances," in an effort to prevent any possibility of drift to authoritarianism or a tyranny of the majority. The new constitution provides for proportional representation, a bicameral legislature and a Constitutional Court, It strengthens the autonomy of local government, the universities and the judiciary and provides additional guarantees to assure freedom of the press, of association and of trade unions. These provisions, combined with legislation setting limits to the activities of political parties, have created a new political environment in Turkey. The change in the structure and aims of political parties has also altered the general atmosphere.

However, the main problem, which will require the utmost attention of our political leaders, remains the same: namely, how to preserve the delicate equilibrium between order and coherence of society on the one hand, and peace and rapid evolution on the other.

Rapid development into a more pluralistic society has introduced problems of harmony, coördination and rational planning in politics. The need to compromise between rural and urban interests, the problem of reconciling the needs of a sophisticated intelligentsia with those of a large uneducated rural population, have heavily taxed the capacity of our political leaders, who were raised in an entirely different environment.

Provincial governors, heads of administrative departments and army officers have been complaining about the loss of administrative efficiency as a result of constant intervention by elected officials and politicians. They are also having to accustom themselves to decentralization of political power and to increasingly articulate criticism by intellectuals in the universities, by the press, the trade unions and independent associations.

The civilian leaders, who no longer owe their power to some higher individual authority or a military victory, face the problem of winning public acceptance. The absence of a military hero is considered a boon in democratic and civilian régimes, but in Turkey, to establish respect for the authority of a democratically elected civilian leader is not an easy matter.

The main responsibility, of course, rests on the majority party which has the power and the initiative. In the last election, contested by six national political parties, the Justice Party obtained 57 percent of the vote. Some of its support, though a small part, came from religious elements which are greatly feared by the intellectuals. The governing party has worked to allay these fears, however, by voting to exclude offenses committed by religious reactionaries from last summer's Amnesty Bill and suspending the General Director of Religious Affairs, whose main support seemed to come from vocally conservative circles. But the Justice Party suffers from being considered the heir of the former Democratic Party, and the minority parties still fear a return to an oppressive majority rule. In these circumstances the ruling party must exercise its mandate with the utmost tact and responsibility. There is no doubt that past experiences will serve as an important lesson for individuals as well as groups. One may therefore expect that the contending parties will henceforth try to avoid tensions which led to the breakdown of the parliamentary system in the past.

With the exception of the small (Marxist) Turkish Labor Party, the political parties have moderate platforms and agree to work within the present social and political framework. In other words, political forces representing 97.5 percent of the electorate repudiate any totalitarian ideology or any advocacy of class warfare with undertones of political violence. The recent drift of the People's Republican Party toward the left, as expressed in a more radical political platform and sometimes violent language associated with Marxism, has created some uncertainty, however. There is an authoritarian and radical streak in the tradition of the Republican Party, but the general political atmosphere is not conducive to an extreme left-wing platform, and the Republican leaders will probably settle down with a moderate left-of-center policy.

As a member of the Justice Party, I comment on the People's Republican Party with some hesitance, but I think it is fair to say that the P.R.P. is trying to find its way in a new era. As the party of Atatürk, claiming to be the propagator of his reformist movement with a mass following, it held a monopoly of political power during the period of single-party rule. Now it must adjust its program to a multi-party system in which it finds itself in a minority. Since the Justice Party emerged with mass support and wholehearted allegiance and respect for the reformist tradition of Atatürk, the P.R.P. has found itself in a vacuum and it is still searching for a way to attract political support.

At its convention in late April, the P.R.P.'s parliamentary members were badly split on the question of the platform. Nearly a third of them resigned from the party on the specific grounds that the party had chosen a path too far to the left to be compatible with the original principles laid down by Atatürk in 1924. It is too early to make any accurate forecast about the probable course of developments arising out of this deep-rooted dispute; but if the P.R.P. does settle for a moderately left-of-center program, the two major parties-both representing moderation and both near the center of the political spectrum-will then be in a better position to offer the electorate valid alternatives. Otherwise, we are likely to see a very strong party opposed by small and ineffective political forces with no chance of coming to power in the near future. This would be a serious weakness for democracy.

III

The function of political parties is to provide a channel of communication between the people and the decision-makers. They help to classify interests of various groups and reconcile public and private aims through competitive politics. In these functions, Turkish political parties have been well organized and have acquired considerable experience. What they need is constructive support and criticism from various national institutions such as the press, trade unions, universities and others who shape public opinion. An independent press of high quality is essential to a well- informed and active public opinion, especially in a society where many people are isolated. The Turkish press, which has shown a phenomenal development in recent years, is starting to improve its accuracy, content and analysis, but still leaves much to be desired.

Similarly, political leaders cannot perform well without good administration and the kind of education that only first-rate universities can provide. In a democracy, political power rests mainly on the power of persuasion based on knowledge. Charismatic leaders with supernatural powers are an anachronism in modern democracies. As Max Weber pointed out, democratic leaders should have the intellectual and psychological qualities which will enable them to work harmoniously and successfully with a rational bureaucracy. Improved training in public administration as well as measures to raise the level of education in the social sciences and the liberal arts are essential if the level of political debate is to be raised and to become more rational. The new generation of politicians is already beginning to recognize that these disciplines are necessary in order to cope with complex problems of policy.

The need to increase the level of education in science, technology and liberal arts is relevant not only for the efficiency of the administration, but also for our partnership with the Western world and in particular the European Economic Community, of which Turkey is now an associate member. In fact, Turkey's desire to maintain close relations with the West in political and economic fields is in the true tradition of Atatürk's heritage, and also an important environmental factor affecting Turkish life, morally and materially.

The amount of public and private capital that has entered Turkey since the Second World War has been unparalleled and has enabled us to double our real national income. The rise in the rate of economic growth to an average of 7 percent has also been a very important stabilizing factor in Turkey's political development. Democracy and self-government are hardly conceivable where citizens live at the subsistence level or where there is no sense of upward movement. The Turkish economy has now attained a stage of development where the process of cumulative growth on a "compound interest" principle can operate, supported by an annual rate of capital accumulation of about 18 percent of domestic resources. However, a greater effort will be required to bring more people, sectors and regions into the orbit of economic development. According to some rough estimates, only half of the total population is contributing to the growth of the economy.

As recently as the 1930s, Turkey had no entrepreneurial class worthy of the name. Now the private sector is vigorous, partly as a result of the rise in per capita income to around $300 at the official rate of exchange. A new and aggressive managerial class in industry and a decentralized pattern of development are enabling the economy to attain higher rates of growth. That is why it is so vital to develop a capital market in Turkey.

In spite of this satisfactory growth, the difficulties of developing social justice and political stability are formidable. The problem of "rising expectations" as a result of economic development and modernization can lead, as we all now know, to unfulfilled hopes. On the whole, Turkish democracy is working to correct social imbalance; the ever widening range of social insurance, social services for poorer regions and groups, schools, hospitals, roads and water supplies are forestalling feelings of injustice. As a result, the Justice Party has a strong following in the villages and trade unions as well as in the towns and among employers.

As long as we maintain social policies which enable the masses to share in the rise of income and wealth of the country, we may hope that radical and revolutionary appeals of the extreme left will be without effect. Despite vigorous efforts of the Marxists to arouse hostility against the present social and economic system, only 2.5 percent of the total electorate responded, and this is an encouraging sign that the Turkish political system will be able to contain the elements of instability. Despite the political setbacks of the early sixties, the prospects for Turkey are bright.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now