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, was proclaimed in 1839. This was an Imperial Edict which restricted the absolute powers of the Sultan, guaranteed the life and property of all citizens without distinction of race or religion, created a Council of State with consultative powers, and placed military service on an equitable footing.

The first experiment in modern representative government in Turkish history came in 1876 when Abdul Hamid II was forced to put into effect the first constitution of the Ottoman Empire. This constitution, which instituted a House of Representatives and a Senate, was a great improvement over the Charter of Reforms, but the indirect election system which it provided was rather primitive. The experiment was in any case of short duration. In 1877 a disastrous war with Russia broke out and the Sultan, seeing an opportunity to resume his autocratic power, dismissed both Houses of Parliament. Absolutism once again ruled. But dissatisfaction could not be suppressed, and under pressure from a patriotic revolutionary group called the Young Turks, Abdul Hamid II was forced in 1908 to revive the Constitution of 1876 and convene Parliament. The parliamentary system reëstablished at this time remained in effect until the occupation of Istanbul by the Allied forces in 1920 at the end of the First World War.

Turkey's defeat in that war ended all idea of reviving the Ottoman Empire. Instead, undaunted Turkish patriots determined to create an independent Turkey in their own homeland in Asia Minor. The desperate national struggle for liberation was led by Mustafa Kemal, later titled Atatürk. The House of Representatives, dissolved after the Allied occupation of Istanbul, was called to convene in Ankara. The new parliament, calling itself the Grand National Assembly, met on April 23, 1920. At first it functioned in accordance with the old Ottoman constitution, but in 1921 a new constitution was adopted, and this in turn was amended and perfected in 1924. At about the same time the Treaty of Lausanne (signed in 1923) formalized the liberation of the country from the occupying Powers and marked alike the end of foreign domination and of the historic theocratic rule of the Sultan. The national aims of independence and territorial integrity were achieved.

Far-reaching reforms were now initiated, inaugurating what is known as the era of Atatürk reforms. The Sultanate and the Caliphate were abolished and the Republic proclaimed. A reform in dress prohibited the wearing of the fez, symbol of the old superstitious religious backwardness. Women were emancipated, polygamy was abolished, the Swiss Civil Code was adopted. The old Arabic alphabet was replaced by a new one with Latin script. The age-old theocratic concepts of the state were abandoned and the principle of a secular republic accepted. All these reforms were sanctioned by laws voted by the Assembly.

II

The modernization of Turkey and the establishment of a new way of life still left a gap which had to be filled if the country were to become a truly modern state. There remained the greatest of reforms, the establishment of real democracy.

Obviously it was most difficult to put democratic principles into practice along with radical social reforms in a country steeped in autocratic and theocratic traditions, and soon the problem was further complicated when free criticism of the government resulted in the development of factions in the Grand National Assembly. Differences of opinion about policy among members of the Assembly led to opposition to Atatürk himself. Actually between 1920 and 1923 there were two parties in the Assembly, though called groups since they did not wish to give themselves formal political names.

Finally in 1925 certain of Atatürk's colleagues separated from their leader to form the Progressive Party. The leading personalities in the new party were experienced patriots. However, the political struggle occasioned by the appearance of this opposition coincided with the anti-reform political and religious reactionary uprising which occurred in that same year in eastern Turkey. This uprising took a dangerous turn and spread to a considerable part of the eastern provinces before it was suppressed. This unfortunate coincidence of events led to the decision to dissolve the opposition party.

Atatürk at this time enjoyed prestige and popularity unprecedented in Turkish history. His enormous personal magnetism and the general convicton of the people that the military and political victories between 1920 and 1923 had been achieved by his genius enabled him to exercise more authority than even the Sultans of the old Ottoman Empire. The constitution of the state was democratic. The formation of political parties was not forbidden. But it took courage to oppose Atatürk.

Nevertheless, a new attempt to form an opposition party was undertaken in 1950, when, with Atatürk's encouragement, some of his close friends founded the Liberal Party. He hoped and expected that his person and the reforms he had introduced would not be attacked by the new party. But as its popularity grew its relations with the dominant party became more and more tense. The struggle ceased to be purely political. Religious reaction developed, and opposition to the Atatürk reforms got beyond the control of the Liberal leaders. Atatürk came to the realization that there can be no such thing as controlled democracy. On their side, the Liberal Party leaders themselves realized eventually that the reforms (in which they sincerely believed) were endangered by the reactionary movement. They saw, too, Atatürk's constantly increasing anxiety about the situation. Before long the Liberal Party dissolved voluntarily. Once again the experiment of creating an opposition party had failed. From this time on, although Atatürk ardently desired the formation of an opposition party, he did nothing actively to encourage it.

In this period the new totalitarian régimes established in Europe were acclaiming the merits of dictatorship and calling democracy a degenerate principle. Although certain of their features might seem to have resembled those of the Turkish régime as it then existed the two systems were indeed very different, and this is a fact of prime importance. Certainly, the practice of democracy fell short of the ideal. Universal suffrage was adopted for local elections, for example, but in general elections the system of the electoral college was retained, with a single list of candidates nominated by the only existing party. Yet the Turkish constitution retained its democratic form. Dictatorship was always rejected in principle. The eulogy of democracy and the aspiration for it never ceased.

III

On Atatürk's death, in 1938, Premier Ismet Inönü was elected President of the Republic by the Grand National Assembly. From this time on new efforts were made to establish real democracy. For one thing, the great reforms which had been made were taking root, and this made it possible for the country to withstand the shocks of free criticism and discussion. Moreover, it was advisable that Turkey's foreign policy in the face of growing complications in the world should be determined not by an authoritarian government but through the free expression of the nation's will. Also, Turkish leaders felt that it was indispensable to move further in practice as well as in theory toward adopting the way of life of the community of nations in whose ideals, culture and political structure the Turkish people sincerely believed.

These considerations led the People's Republican Party in 1945 to attempt to establish a truly democratic system; and as a first step, although the single-list system of elections was continued, the decision was made to enable the electors to express their individual preferences by placing on the list more candidates than the number to be elected. Greater freedom of discussion was allowed also within the Party and serious criticism of government policy and actions took place on an increasing scale.

World War II slowed the progress of the democratization effort. But in 1945 a new stage was reached--and it is of particular significance because it was lasting. In May of that year President Inönü made a declaration recommending the introduction of the democratic system with all its implications. Later in the same year, in his annual message to the Grand National Assembly, he pointed out the necessity for an opposition party and the adoption of the direct universal election system as essential features of democracy.

Meanwhile, Turkey had been faced by a more serious menace than during the Second World War. In March 1945 Soviet Russia denounced the nonaggression pact which had been in existence between the two countries since 1925 and demanded cession of three eastern provinces and the establishment of "common defense" bases on the Straits as the conditions of a new friendship and nonaggression pact. It is important to note that when Russia made these aggressive demands Japan had not yet surrendered and the Kremlin's prestige with the democratic Powers was at its zenith. The attitude of the Western Powers implied that differences with Russia should be avoided and that a direct settlement of pending issues should be sought. Greece meantime had fallen prey to Communist agitation. Under these circumstances the Turkish Government, after exhausting all possible efforts for a friendly agreement with the Soviets, emphatically rejected their unjust demands. It took this courageous act at the risk of being left alone by the Western democracies.

The first result of the new political freedom was the foundation of the National Rehabilitation Party in 1945. Soon after, certain members of the Grand National Assembly who were members of the People's Republican Party proposed the abolition of various laws which they considered anti-democratic. Later they resigned and early in 1946 founded the Democratic Party.

In the meantime, Turkey's situation as neighbor to the Soviets was becoming more and more critical. Russia was building up a system of satellite states on her borders. The integrity and patriotism of the leaders of the different political parties in Turkey were above suspicion, but inevitably political discussions between them sometimes took dangerous turns.

It was under these conditions that the general elections of 1946 were held, under a new electoral law providing for the first time for the direct election of representatives. The new law had been hastily prepared. Moreover, the country was without experience in democratic electoral procedure, even such a simple matter as voting alone in an election booth being unknown both to the man-in-the-street and to the intellectual. Of the 465 representatives elected, 60 were members of the Democratic Party. The fact that the opposition parties had not presented candidates for even half of the constituencies made a People's Republican Party majority inevitable.

Soon after the elections, dissension arose within the ranks of the Democratic Party, which constituted the main opposition. The Party leaders were accused of having come to a secret understanding with the government. In the ensuing split the Nation's Party was born. This new Party, announcing itself the real champion of liberty, denounced both the Democratic Party and the People's Republican Party.

Complete freedom of the press was secured at this time both by law and in practice, and continues unhampered up to the present. The burning question which remained was the reform of the electoral law and safeguards for fair elections. After careful study and combined effort on the part of all the political parties a new electoral law was enacted which satisfied the keenest critics and allayed the doubts and anxieties of the opposition.

When we recall that none of the previous attempts at democracy (1876, 1908, 1920, 1923, 1925, 1930) survived more than a few months, we can see that the latest democratic experiment, which has lasted more than five years in the face of external dangers, is really a significant achievement. It shows that in these years Turkey has attained strength and maturity.

IV

Until the results of the 1950 elections became known the opposition parties did not believe that the party in power would conduct honest and fair elections. They had voiced their anxiety in all parts of the country and demanded all sorts of measures against possible irregularities. In the event, everyone who witnessed the elections, including foreign newspapermen and others, stated that they were held in complete freedom, in strict observance of the principles of the new electoral law.

The result was the defeat of the People's Republican Party and the triumph of the Democratic Party with a majority far surpassing any expectations. The Democratic Party obtained 55 percent of the votes (4,500,000) as against 42 percent for the People's Republican Party (3,330,000). The other parties and the independents received 3 percent (220,000). No one, even in the Democratic Party, had expected the People's Republican Party to lose. But its leaders were determined to live up to the guarantees of the new electoral law even if this involved the possibility of defeat; and the fact that this determination was carried to the point where they actually were defeated proves their sincerity. Some critics like to claim that the leaders of the party in power were obliged to act as they did through pressure of public opinion; and certainly it is true that public opinion did exert a considerable influence. However, if those in power had not believed sincerely in democracy there were adequate means at hand for them to retain office regardless of consequences.

A comparison of the number of votes obtained by each party with the number of seats which it secured in the Grand National Assembly reveals a great disparity between the two sets of figures. The Democratic Party won 410 seats with its roughly 4,500,000 votes, as against 69 seats for the People's Republican Party with its roughly 3,330,000. The peculiarity of the Turkish election system thus revealed has brought demands that it be improved to give fairer results in future elections.

How did it come about that the People's Republican Party, builder of the new Turkey, founded by Atatürk himself and headed by Inönü, could lose? The reasons are as follows:

(1) The People's Republican Party had been continuously in power for 27 years. All the hardships and resulting discontents of these years were laid at its door.

(2) The fundamental changes in the social and political life of Turkey had been introduced by the People's Republican Party. Although these reforms were accepted by the people in general and had become part of the normal national life there still remained some who were unreceptive to the new ways, clung to cherished old customs and hoped to return to them. These voted against the People's Republican Party.

(3) During the electoral campaign the Democratic Party made extravagant and exceedingly attractive promises to the voters. The Turkish people were not used to judging campaign pledges of political parties and took all these promises literally.

(4) Considerable numbers of adherents of the People's Republican Party were overconfident about the Party's success and did not trouble to go to the polls.

(5) Great numbers of citizens who had no party affiliations shared the view that the People's Republican Party would win anyway. They felt that a stronger representation of the opposition would strengthen democracy, and therefore decided that it would be both safe and advisable to vote for the small opposition party.

The Democratic Party has now been in office for over a year. The general expectation had been that by this time Turkey would have assimilated the difficulties of this stage in her democratic development, and that further advances would follow smoothly. Judging from press comments and expressions of public sentiment, the results of the past year have been somewhat disappointing. The Democratic Party has shown distrust of the opposition parties and these in turn have not relented in their attacks on office holders. Local elections were held after the general elections, between July and October 1950. They were declared by Democratic Party spokesmen to indicate that the opposition had been "liquidated." Nevertheless, the results of the elections reveal that the opposition parties have held their ground.

One healthy result of these experiences has been to emphasize that the Turks have the inherent resoluteness and self-reliance necessary to enable them to recognize their political rights, and to require that the relations of government and opposition contribute to the development of true democracy. The average citizen and the free and independent press have consciously taken the cause of democracy to heart. They understand that it is their duty to defend the rights of the opposition.

There is, however, another side to this encouraging picture. Although 30 years have gone by since Turkey abandoned theocratic rule, the forces of religious reaction are not dead. The freedom of discussion natural in a democracy has given opportunity for the development of unforeseen hostility to the reforms of Atatürk and the new Turkish way of life.

Most regrettably, elements in some political parties have thought that this offered an opportunity to catch votes, and with it in mind they have, from time to time, courted the reactionary agitators. This tendency might constitute a danger for Turkish democracy. It is reassuring, however, that progressive and enlightened groups within those same parties have taken a firm attitude in the face of this possible danger. They have seen that in certain neighboring countries foreign ideologies and influences have infiltrated through the channels of religious reaction. Although this danger does not at present exist in Turkey, farseeing Turks urge that watchful care be taken that it does not develop.

Certain gestures of the leaders of the party now in office have been taken as encouragement by the reactionaries. Thus a superstitious, fanatical group has made open attacks on statues of Atatürk. The sect is small but its actions are spectacular, and these have perhaps attracted more publicity than was warranted. The attitude of the people as a whole, regardless of religious sympathies and political affiliations, showed strong disapproval of this sect's activities. Measures were soon taken and pronouncements made which indicated that the courting of reactionary tendencies was being abandoned. The government's object must be to curb the destructive and unlawful activities of pseudo-religious groups without impairing the religious freedom which has always existed in Turkey.

V

Since Turkey has had no claims upon territories outside her present borders her relations with the successor states of the old Ottoman Empire have been normal. A natural understanding exists between Turkey and these nations, especially the Arab states. They practise the same religion as Turkey and have lived together with her for centuries. They have a common heritage of traditions and culture. The People's Republican Party always considered it to Turkey's advantage that the Arab states be stable and prosperous. The correct and cordial policy which is adopted toward them has been continued by the present party in power--a policy based on a realization of mutual interests and not on sentiment or religion. The concept of Pan Islamism is not considered to correspond to modern realities.

An understanding of mutual interests has prompted Turkey to consider Israel an important factor in the political and economic life of the Middle East and to follow her remarkable and rapid development with great interest. Diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel are harmonious. Turkey naturally looks upon the conflict between Israel and the Arab states as very unfortunate. Perhaps as the former senior member of the Ottoman Empire she can yet find a way to help bring about an understanding among these states, all once parts of the same realm.

Turkey is happy to find that she enjoys great prestige in the Middle East, not only in the neighboring Arab countries but in countries more distant still, in Afghanistan, Iran, India, Pakistan and Indonesia, and even in China and Korea. These admire her as one of their own number who has been able to attain real sovereignty and become a modern state. The Middle East countries consider her a pioneer and hope to equal her achievements. This makes the development of democracy in Turkey very significant from an international point of view. The fact that democracy is taking root in Turkey can have a revivifying and instructive effect throughout the Moslem world, helping to persuade theocratic and undemocratic countries that it is after all compatible with their own best traditions. The Turkish example may even demonstrate to other Moslem countries that their cultural and social life will develop better within the democratic framework. And a failure of democracy in Turkey would greatly discourage these countries from trying the experiment.

Historians have often asserted that democracy could not be established in countries with a Moslem and Byzantine heritage. Turkey has refuted this by founding a stable democratic system based upon Western culture. She thus has become a steppingstone by means of which European civilization, culture and moral values, with all their implications and significance, can penetrate into the East. She takes her place in the international community of nations as a member charged with an important mission. The principle of democracy has been definitely established in Turkey. She will guard it and try, by the power of successful example, to spread its influence beyond her own borders.

  • KASIM GULEK, Secretary General of the Turkish People's Republican Party; formerly Minister of Public Works, Minister of Communications, and Minister of State; Chairman in 1950 of the United Nations Commission on Korea
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