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Act One of Turkey’s Post-1980 Political Drama

The mysterious clearing of Turkey’s political stage

In its recent consolidation of power, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (hereafter, AKP) has honed the art of performance. President Erdoğan’s improvisational finesse last July — when he famously called on supporters to throng airports and city squares — even fueled speculation that July 15th itself was a bit of pre-scripted theater. In any event, the foiled military coup enabled a successful plebiscitary one: convening a referendum under conditions of emergency rule, in April the government announced majority approval for Erdoğan’s sweeping new powers. Production of a political thriller based on the events of July 15th symbolizes the extent to which Turkish politics is now a hyper-real staging of itself, with Erdoğan sitting in the director’s chair.

Given this depiction of the present, it would be surprising to learn that AKP’s first electoral victory happened somewhat by accident. In the uncut version of the post-1980 Turkish political drama, AKP is the second of two acts. It is Act One, not Act Two, that made the party’s hegemony possible.

1985-1995: a cast of would-be lefts

The curtain rose on Turkish democracy in 1983 after a three-year intermission. A coup d’état in 1980 halted the performance of politics and banned its players. Among those banned was the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represented Turkey’s center-left. CHP gained popularity in the 1970s under the leadership of former labor minister Bülent Ecevit after struggling for decades to shed the bureaucratic image it acquired as the political arm of Turkey’s single-party state between 1925 and 1945. Ecevit’s and other political leaders’ reluctance to implement unpopular IMF reforms caused them to fall afoul of the military, which took matters into its own hands in September 1980.

Following the coup, the junta not only disbanded the old parties but created new ones: the Party of Nationalist Democracy (MDP) was founded under retired general Turgut Sunalp to replace the old center-right Justice Party (and earmarked as the generals’ preference for victory), while the Populist Party (HP) was to be a tame left opposition headed by reliable bureaucrat Necdet Calp. The junta also gave its seal of approval to a party founded by the sole member of the outgoing civilian cabinet it retained, economy minister Turgut Özal. The junta’s prohibition of pre-coup parties and grooming of new ones suggests that it intended post-interregnum politics to proceed with a new — and limited — cast. In this, the generals were only partly successful. While 1983’s election was restricted to a cast of military-vetted contenders, independent parties soon formed, many of which were left wing.

In fact, the period between 1985 and 1995 witnessed a proliferation of parties claiming the role of center-left. The generals’ attempt to impose a market economy by fiat — suppressing wages and crushing organized labor — ensured that popular grievances were ripe for political direction when democracy resumed. The prohibition of pre-coup parties meant that a vehicle besides the old Republican People’s Party (CHP) would have to be created. Some social democrats saw an opportunity to purge all remaining traces of CHP’s association with Turkey’s early single-party dictatorship and to forge a Western-style social democratic party. Pressures to form an inclusive left also came from leaders’ desire to capture the votes of Turkey’s Kurds, who had been politicized in the 1980s by the fallout from the military’s armed conflict with the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), and by immiseration, as public investment dried up with the market transition. A disadvantaged minority 15 million strong, the Kurds represented a natural constituency in the eyes of many left-wing politicians.

The Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) formed in 1985 and attracted Kurds and non-CHP leftists alongside former CHP-ers. SHP even absorbed the Populist Party (HP), which the junta had vainly hoped would remain a mildly left-wing opponent under its influence. Identifying itself as a party of laborers, farmers, public servants and small producers, SHP pledged to reform the illiberal 1982 constitution, implement full ILO standards in labor law, and improve universal social programs. The party viewed both economic planning and taxation as tools for achieving a more equitable society and, in its report on the “East and Southeast” (code for the Kurdish regions) it boldly blamed the military for worsening the regional conflict. Soon, SHP showed signs of realizing the mass base it aspired to: taking second place in 1987’s national elections (behind the Motherland party of the junta’s pet technocrat Turgut Özal), SHP swept 1989’s local elections and appeared to have national power in its sights. Falling short of this in 1991, SHP became junior partner in a coalition with the center-right.

Also founded in 1985, the Democratic Left Party (DSP) was headed by a charismatic leader of the 1970s, Bülent Ecevit. Pledging that “in Turkey, the people; and in the world, Turkey, will be empowered,” DSP vowed to tax wealth and break up monopolies, to foster worker-owned cooperatives, and to protect Turkey’s national interests. The party lacked SHP’s draw with Kurdish voters (Ecevit viewed expression of Kurdish identity as divisive and, particularly after formation of a U.S.-protected zone in Northern Iraq, foreign-inspired). Yet DSP’s “national left” (ulusal sol) gained popularity in the 1990s, as Turkey’s borrowing-dependent economy entered crisis. In 1999, DSP acceded to the head of a coalition government, promising to curb financial speculation, quash corruption, and restore ordinary people’s access to credit.

In 1990, the People’s Labor Party (HEP) formed from a splinter from SHP. Its founders sought a party “answering the wants and demands of all popular sectors.” Radically pro-labor, HEP’s program called to prohibit employer lockouts and to legalize general, sympathy, and solidarity strikes. Initially called New Democratic Formation, in its early stages the party’s founders included both Kurds and Turks, including well-known Turkish left-wingers like academic and activist Murat Belge.

The New Democracy Movement (YDH) was a liberal party founded in 1994. Led by businessman Cem Boyner, YDH’s founders list brought leading social scientists (including the late sociologist, Şerif Mardin), journalists, Kurdish intellectuals and a former trade unionist together with business leaders. The eclectic party pledged creation of a new constitution protecting individual rights, and supported devolving power to local authorities, including in Kurdish regions. Boyner boasted that YDH would receive 45% in 1995’s election.

In 1992, legal reform allowed CHP to re-open. With the slogan “New Aims, New Turkey,” the party added support for civil society, human rights, and Turkey’s diversity to its program. CHP simultaneously attempted to shed its bureaucratic image.

The puzzle, then, is this: of the varied left-wing contenders to appear on Turkey’s political stage, not one posed a challenge to AKP — then a year-old, untested party — in 2002. Gaining a plurality of 34%, AKP swept to power with 363 of 550 parliamentary seats and broke a 15-year streak of coalition governments. Only one other party, CHP, entered parliament. What happened?

November 2002: an empty stage and an ambitious understudy

Perhaps AKP just gave an especially felicitous performance? Examining the 2002 election, this does not appear to be the case. Turkey suffered catastrophe in February 2001 when investors pulled their money out of the country en masse. In the ensuing crisis, the currency lost half its value, GNP declined 9%, and up to a million jobs were lost. Struggling with an unpopular recovery plan, Turkey in 2002 was rapidly losing IMF confidence. Given the stakes, AKP’s campaign performance seems amateurish: making vague (mostly undelivered) promises to voters that it would resist IMF demands, the party had, Marcie Patton observes, “no cogent economic strategy it could call its own.” Yet somehow, the year-old party won popular acclaim. How did this occur? The answer appears to be that, by 2002, challengers on the left had all but disappeared after a series of puzzling blunders.

The first party to exit the stage was HEP. In 1993, Turkey’s Constitutional Court dissolved the party for seeking the “destruction of national unity.” But even before its removal by deus ex machina, HEP was out of the running for a lead role: alienating Turkish members (Murat Belge departed even prior to HEP’s official registration), HEP came to be identified solely with the Kurdish cause. We are left to wonder how a party that claimed to represent “workers, the unemployed, villagers, civil servants, teachers; democratic, social democratic, and socialist thinkers; artisans, tradespeople… and all who are on the side of democracy” became a “Kurdish party” — to say nothing of the judicial ban. SHP’s self-inflicted failure is also puzzling: after leaders decided in late 1989 to expel seven deputies who had attended an international conference on Kurdish rights, SHP hemorrhaged thousands of members who resigned in protest. Among them were future founders of HEP. SHP began a drift to the right, eventually merging with an increasingly centrist CHP. It would not regain its earlier popularity. Why did a party so supportive of Kurdish rights expel members for attending a Kurdish conference — particularly when the decision proved so electorally damaging?

New Democracy’s demise is also mysterious, because the party seemed to sabotage itself from the start. While YDH’s goal of constitutional reform was popular, its economic views were far less so. With policies that included wholesale privatization of public enterprises and elimination of lifetime employment guarantees and other protections, YDH failed to gain mass appeal. Receiving just 0.47% of 1995’s national vote, it folded soon thereafter. Why did a party filled with social scientists advocate policies likely to alienate workers and consumers?

Finally, DSP’s change in political fortune warrants investigation. The party took an electoral nose-dive from first place in the 1999 election to just over 1% three years later. That voters rejected an incumbent after 2001’s crash is perhaps not surprising. But the party’s policies inspired popular anger even before February’s crisis. Kurtuluş Gemici (2013) describes how, in 2000, the DSP coalition restructured the state-owned People’s Bank, which supplied subsidized credit to tradespeople and shopkeepers. Drastically cutting the supply of credit, the government also raised interest on existing loans to market rates, which in February reached a breathtaking 255%. Why did DSP abandon the tradespeople, shopkeepers, and farmers on whose votes it depended?

In the tale of collective abdication sketched above, parties exhibited behavior that is difficult to understand in strategic terms. Yet given the early success of some parties (like SHP), it seems fair to assume there is more to the story than leaders’ ineptitude. Answering the questions raised will require moving beyond individual parties to investigate the context in which democracy resumed after 1980. The coup’s interruption of politics should be examined in relation to the political field as a whole, as should economic and geopolitical developments. Only then will we understand the circumstances that propelled the understudy, AKP, into the lead.

Phyllis H. Jeffrey recently obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Davis, where her dissertation (“Clearing a Path for the AKP: Articulation Struggles and the Fracturing of Turkey’s Left: 1983-2002”) focused on the political failures of left-wing and Islamic parties in the period prior to AKP’s emergence.

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