Democracy Takes Root in Turkey

Turkish army tanks stationed near the Turkish-Syrian border, August 2016. Umit Bektas / Reuters

THE transition from autocracy to democracy is a difficult process: most countries have achieved it to the accompaniment of revolution, terrorism and bloodshed. Turkey is one of the rare cases where the transformation has taken place in an orderly way without any violent upheaval. Where else in history has a firmly entrenched authoritarian single party peacefully handed over power to another party as a result of free elections held under its own supervision? This is what happened in Turkey in 1950. The reason it could happen was that the ground for democracy had been slowly prepared during a hundred years by successive reforms, but even more because the foundations of the Turkish social structure were favorable. Social democracy existed in Turkey long before political democracy appeared in the world. There were no set social distinctions there--neither serfdom, feudalism nor hereditary nobility.

The Ottoman Empire remained outside the political advances which took place in Europe after the Renaissance, and instead devoted its energies to expanding its territorial dominion. Throughout the period of its decline, beginning with the second failure to conquer Vienna in 1683, its political administration and social organization were stagnant. It was not so much that it retrogressed as that Europe by comparison advanced in great strides.

Following the French Revolution, however, the Ottoman Empire, a theocracy under the rule of an absolute monarch, began to experience the impact of the new political ideas as well as of the new social and legal institutions brought into being by the industrial revolution. In particular it was affected by the idea of nationalism, which appeared in Europe in the nineteenth century. This aroused separatist ambitions among the different elements of the Ottoman Empire and speeded its disintegration more rapidly than did its characteristics of despotism or autocracy.

Turkish statesmen and diplomats who were able to have European contacts came to realize the necessity for adopting Western ideas and methods. Under their influence the Charter of Reforms, known as the Gülhane Hatti Hümayunu

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