Conservative globalists versus defensive nationalists: political parties and paradoxes of Europeanization in Turkey

Ziya Öniş 

The period since the December 1999 Helsinki summit has been a time of remarkable economic and political change in Turkey.

The EU impact was already evident in the 1990s, with the 1995 Customs Union Agreement exerting a significant impact in terms of initiating important economic and political reforms. Yet arguably the real breakthrough occurred and the momentum of ‘Europeanization’ gathered considerable pace, once the goal of full EU membership became a concrete possibility with the recognition in 1999 of Turkey’s candidate status.[1] Political parties have emerged as agents of Europeanization, while themselves being transformed in the Europeanization process. The objective of the present paper is to highlight the role of political parties in Turkey’s recent Europeanization process and to underline some of the peculiarities of the Turkish party system and of some of the key parties as agents of economic and political transformation.


From a comparative perspective, the following aspects of Turkey’s Europeanization appear rather striking and paradoxical. Civil society actors have been much more active and vocal in their push for EU membership and the associated reform process than the major political parties. Within civil society, business actors and notably big business have emerged as central.[2] Turning to the parties, the ‘Islamists’ have been transformed much more than their ‘secularist’ counterparts. A political party with explicit Islamist roots, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), established itself as a vigorous supporter of EU-related reforms following its November 2002 election victory.[3] Yet another

paradox is that many of the established parties on both the left and right of the political spectrum can be characterized as ‘defensive nationalists’, in the sense that they are broadly supportive of EU membership in principle but tend to be uncomfortable with key elements of EU conditionality. If membership could be accomplished without reforms, many of these parties would welcome the opportunity. Finally a central paradox is that ‘social democracy’ remains, for historical and other reasons, the element least affected by the ongoing Europeanization process. The fact there is no European-style social democratic party constitutes a serious weakness in the Turkish context, contributing to a process of lop-sided democratization. The absence or weakness of social democracy is also critical in terms of the limitations it imposes on the nature and depth of the Europeanization process. Political competition increasingly involves different segments of the ‘centre-right’, taking the form of a contest between ‘conservative globalists’ and ‘defensive nationalists’, with the former providing the main impetus for reform and the latter constituting a serious source of resistance.


The peculiarities of the left–right divide in Turkish politics: a European perspective


A European observer would be quite puzzled by the left–right cleavages in the Turkish party system. In European or Western democracies, party positions on socio-economic issues or policies constitute the main dividing line between parties located on the left and right. Centre-left or social democratic parties are traditionally distinguished by their concern with the status of the poor, their preoccupation with income redistribution in favour of weaker segments of society and their vision of a more interventionist state in economic and social affairs. Although social democratic parties have been undergoing a process of change in recent years in an attempt to adapt to globalization, their traditional concern with redistribution and active interventionism remain intact, albeit in a modified form. In addition to socio-economic policies, culture also constitutes a line of demarcation between right and left. In cultural terms, the European left is much more secular in outlook and its approach to the European Union is in terms of an open-ended political project. In this respect, it is not surprising that some of the major European social democratic parties, including the German SPD and

New Labour in Britain, have become major supporters of Turkish accession to the EU, on the strict understanding that Turkey would be willing to apply the kind of democratic reforms needed to satisfy EU conditionality.


Turning to the Turkish context, a leading scholar argues that ‘the “right” refers to a commitment to religious, conservative and nationalist values, while the “left” is defined primarily in terms of secularism’ (Özbudun, 2006, p. 135).[4] Unlike their West European counterparts, political party positions on socioeconomic issues do not neatly correspond to the standard left–right cleavage. Right-of-centre parties in general and parties of Islamist origin, in particular, have also displayed sensitivity towards issues relating to social justice and the position of the poor. Traditionally, such parties have utilized the notion of a paternalistic state, effectively combining this with nationalistic and religious discourse to appeal to broad segments of society. In turn, this enabled them to construct large cross-class coalitions which became a basis for significant electoral success. Indeed, a cursory look at the multi-party era clearly indicates the dominance of centre-right parties in the electoral contest. The Democratic Party of Menderes in the 1950s, the Justice Party era under Demirel in the 1960s, the ANAP years under Özal in the 1980s and the recent experience with the AKP under Tayyip Erdoğan represent the continuity of the dominant centre-right tradition in Turkish politics. This has been effectively challenged only once, by the self-professed centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) led by Ecevit during the mid-1970s.


Centre-right parties in Turkey have also effectively capitalized on what Şerif Mardin has described as the centre–periphery cleavage in Turkish politics.[5] According to Mardin, the main line of demarcation underlying the Turkish political system in the multi-party era has been a perennial conflict between a centralized, cohesive and heavily secularist state elite confronted by a culturally

heterogeneous periphery with strong religious overtones. Centre-right parties have effectively utilized anti-state or anti-establishment sentiments to construct broad-based electoral support. In contrast, centre-left parties, with their strong organic links to the republican ‘centre’, failed to develop the kind of links with society at large needed to generate widespread political support. From a European perspective, the striking anomaly of the Turkish experience is that right-of-centre, conservative parties appear to be more ‘society-centred’, whereas left-of-centre parties appear to be more elitist and detached from society at large. This again renders the simple application of right and left rather problematic in the Turkish context. Indeed, looking at the most recent configuration of Turkish politics, with the AKP in government and the CHP as the main opposition party, one can locate traces of the ‘centre–periphery paradigm’, with the CHP as the party of the state and the secular elites versus the AKP as the party of the periphery or society at large.


In terms of commitment to Turkey’s EU membership, the parties’ ideological positions appear much more relevant in the European context. In the Turkish context, however, the parties’ ideological orientation on a left to right axis has limited explanatory power. In Turkey, EU membership has been a goal of state policy in line with the broader objectives of Westernization and modernization and has been embraced by parties from both sides of the ideological spectrum. Mainstream political parties have on the whole been supportive of EU membership in principle. ‘Hard Euro-scepticism’, entailing the rejection of EU membership, is confined to fringe elements in the party system, namely, extreme leftists or nationalists and radical Islamists, who constitute a very small percentage of the total electorate.[6] Nevertheless, ‘soft euroscepticism’, involving a certain dislike of the conditions associated with full membership if not the idea of membership itself, is quite widespread and can be identified in political parties across the political spectrum.[7]


‘Soft Euro-scepticism’ surfaces whenever there is a reference to Cyprus, the Kurdish issue, the rights of Christian minorities and so on. It is fair to say that the CHP today, as the principal element of allegedly centre-left opposition, is dominated by the rhetoric of soft euroscepticism. This is quite a disconcerting phenomenon, since in practical terms the distinction between hard and soft euroscepticism becomes increasingly irrelevant in the sense that it becomes meaningless to talk about membership in the absence of reform. What is striking from a European perspective, however, is that there exist quite significant elements within the Turkish state, society and party system, which tend to think of membership and reform as independent and unrelated categories. This is clearly an important factor to take into account in terms of the sustainability of Turkey’s Europeanization drive and the ongoing reform process.


The peculiarities of the party system are important in the context of Turkey’s Europeanization drive for the following reasons. First, some of the key supporters of Turkish membership in Europe, namely, the social democrats, fail to find a direct counterpart in the Turkish context. In many cases, they have to work through indirect channels, such as civil society organizations, in order to be able to monitor and influence the reform process. Indeed, the CHP’s membership of the Socialist International has been increasingly described as absurd, given the party’s current positions. This lack of correspondence between social democrats in Europe and in Turkey clearly constitutes a handicap. Secondly, the AKP, which finds itself at the centre of the reform process and wishes to develop close, organic ties with like-minded political parties in Europe, finds itself in the awkward position of trying to forge links with Christian Democratic parties which are on the whole far less receptive to Turkish membership on cultural and economic grounds. Clearly, these factors create a fertile environment for the principal alternative to Turkey’s membership, namely, the idea of a special status or ‘privileged partnership’. One should not underestimate the potential for the growth of a broad-based coalition supporting a privileged partnership solution for Turkey, given that this perspective is deeply rooted in key segments of both the Turkish and European party systems.


The AKP as a key political actor in Turkey’s recent Europeanization process


Conceptual distinctions, such as the left–right divide and the centre–periphery, have some value in understanding the nature of Turkish politics. However, such distinctions can be confusing at the same time, given the difficulties of making sharp distinctions between ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, especially if one tries to employ these terms on the basis of their everyday usage in European politics. A differentiation along the lines of ‘globalists’ versus ‘defensive nationalists’ arguably provides a more precise and meaningful distinction in understanding recent realignments in Turkish politics, particularly in the post-Helsinki era.


The term ‘globalists’ refers to those segments of state and society which essentially have a positive view of globalization and see it as a phenomenon which provides opportunities for material improvement and the advancement of society in general. ‘Globalists’ tend to be ‘integrationist’ and ‘reformist’ at the same time. Those who hold a positive view of globalization also see European integration and Turkey’s EU membership as parallel and positive processes. ‘Europeanization’, in this context, becomes a mechanism, a framework or an intermediate route for a country like Turkey to cope effectively with and benefit from globalization. They also tend to be ‘reformist’, in the sense that they see economic and political reforms as a necessary condition in order to capitalize on the benefits of Europeanization and globalization.


In contrast, groups whom we categorize as defensive or inward-oriented nationalists have, by and large, a negative view of globalization. Their politics is based on fear, in the sense that they see globalization as a process leading to the erosion of national sovereignty, in turn generating partition and an inability to preserve the existing borders. Their conception of globalization is a negative process whose risks and associated inequalities far outweigh its potential benefits. Defensive nationalists also perceive globalization and Europeanization as parallel and complementary phenomena, but tend to view these processes in a rather negative fashion as working against the unity and the secular character of the Turkish state.


At the elite level, the ‘globalists’ camp would include secular liberals both within the state and society at large, moderate Islamists and Kurdish reformers. This bloc has become increasingly powerful in the post-Helsinki era, enjoying considerable public support on the basis of the expected material benefits of effective exposure to globalization and eventual EU membership. The defensive nationalist or anti-reform coalition, on the other hand, includes ultra-nationalists, hard-core Kemalists and radical Islamists as well as major labour unions. One can easily fall into the trap of putting all these groups into the same basket and exaggerating the degree of their anti-reformism or euroscepticism. For example, ‘Kemalist hard-liners’, who are extremely sensitive on issues like secularism and national sovereignty, at the same time favour Westernization. They find themselves in the awkward position of supporting Turkey’s EU membership in principle, since opposition to the EU would signify an anti-Western stance inconsistent with the founding principles of the Turkish Republic. When it comes to reforms, however, they find themselves in a rather uncomfortable position. This is clearly the kind of dilemma that the Turkish military establishment faces at the moment. It would be misleading to argue that the military is firmly in the anti-EU camp. It would also be incorrect to suggest that the military has a negative view of economic globalization, given that as a powerful economic actor in its own right, it actively engages in and benefits from the globalization process. At the same time, there is no doubt that the military leadership is highly uncomfortable with many of the key political reforms sponsored by the EU and would like to maintain a privileged role for itself in Turkish politics. Hence, even a conceptualization along the lines of ‘globalist/pro-reform coalition’ versus ‘defensive nationalist/anti-reform coalition’ contains certain shortcomings. Such a distinction has considerable analytical value but, nevertheless, ought to be used with certain caution and reservations.


The ‘globalist’ versus ‘nationalists’ division cuts across party lines. Indeed, it is possible to find elements of both camps within the same political party. It would be interesting to consider in this context the coalition government of 1999–2002 which played an important role in initiating widespread political reforms in Turkey, including the abolition of the death penalty. The major government partner, the Democratic Left Party (DSP) led by Bu¨ lent Ecevit, would be considered much closer to the ‘nationalist’ bloc. At the same time, the party’s MPs included influential figures such as the Minister of State for Economic Affairs, Kemal Dervis¸, and the Foreign Secretary, İsmail Cem, whom one would clearly identify with the ‘globalist’ camp. The second major component of the coalition government, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) would clearly be classified as a key element of the ‘defensive nationalist’ bloc, whereas the third and minor coalition partner, the Motherland Party (ANAP) led by Mesut Yilmaz, was firmly in the globalist/pro-reform coalition. In fact, Yilmaz’s leadership was critical in pushing the coalition government to pass a large-scale reform package through Parliament in August 2002.


The AKP, which established its electoral dominance in 2002, clearly capitalizing on the negative impact of the major economic crisis of 2001 on the established political parties, currently constitutes the strongest and most vigorous element of the globalist/pro-reform coalition within the Turkish political party spectrum. In contrast to the divisions which existed within the DSP, for example, the AKP presented a broadly united front in its defence of the EU-related reforms and IMF disciplines. The case of the AKP again demonstrates that there is no neat correspondence between the left/right distinction and reformism versus anti-reformism. This is a conservative, right-of-centre party with explicit Islamist roots. At the same, however, the party leadership’s commitment to reform has been much more pronounced than any of its predecessors or existing competitors. Between 2002 and 2004, in the presence of a double external anchor (IMF and the EU), the economy recovered swiftly from a major crisis. The democratization reforms continued with an accelerating momentum. The AKP government also differed from its predecessors in terms of foreign policy initiatives. For example, for the first time in the recent era, a Turkish government was willing to contemplate an internationally acceptable solution to the Cyprus dispute along the lines of the proposed UN plan. The very pace of the reform process in Turkey resulted in the EU’s historic decision of December 2004 to initiate accession negotiations, probably at a much earlier date than initially anticipated at the Helsinki Summit.


The challenge of defensive nationalism: has the AKP been losing its early reformist momentum?


The AKP further consolidated its electoral position in the municipal elections of March 2004. With the rising Anatolian bourgeoisie in its electoral coalition, the party leadership reaped the benefits of globalization and potential EU membership as a means of constructing and sustaining a broad-based electoral coalition. In opposition, the party had adopted a somewhat critical attitude towards the IMF. Once in office, however, the party leadership was sufficiently pragmatic and flexible to accept that full-scale recovery from a major economic crisis in a debt-ridden economy would not be possible without an IMF programme. Commitment to the latter and to EU membership were also important in terms of generating support on the part of big business and the foreign financial community who were initially rather apprehensive about the party, fearing that it could indulge in a new round of populist expansionism on the economic front while undermining the secular foundations of the Republic in the political sphere. Beyond the economic realm, a firm commitment to EU membership was important for the AKP in terms of displaying its pro-Western orientation and its broad commitment to secularism. In addition, the party saw the EU as a necessary safeguard to protect itself against the hard-core Kemalist or secularist establishment in domestic politics. The EU appeared to provide an additional space for moderate Islamists converted into Muslim Democrats to press for what they considered to be essential religious freedoms. Whilst the AKP leadership provided support for the democratization agenda in general, the democratic freedoms they cherished most were related to religion. The most publicized issue concerned allowing female students to enter schools and universities wearing headscarves.


At the end of 2004, Turkey appeared to be on the right track. The EU made the critical decision to open accession negotiations. The economy was booming and the AKP government appeared to be fully in control, facing very little effective opposition from parties either on the left or the right of the political spectrum. By 2006–2007, a rather different picture started to emerge, with the AKP appearing to lose some of its enthusiasm and initial reformist zeal. The pendulum appears to have swung considerably in the direction of the nationalists and Euro-sceptics and public support for EU membership appears to have suffered a considerable decline. Fortunately, there is a line of continuity which deserves serious emphasis, in the sense that rapid economic growth has continued, with the government staying relentlessly within the fiscal limits imposed by the IMF programme. For a country whose performance in previous decades had been considered highly inadequate, the economy appeared to be doing extremely well in terms of attracting long-term foreign investment.

Moreover, the economy appeared to be quite robust in withstanding various internal and external shocks during 2006.


In retrospect, several factors have contributed to rising nationalistic sentiments in Turkey, helping to swing the precarious balance in domestic politics away from the reformist elements towards the defensive nationalist/antireform coalition. Negative developments in Europe itself have exercised an unfavourable impact on Turkish politics, an observation which clearly highlights the crucial impact of signals originating in the EU on the perception and behaviour of key political actors in Turkey. The European project itself appeared to have reached an impasse, following the rejection of the proposed Constitutional Treaty in the French and Dutch referenda. The fact that Turkish membership emerged as a major issue of contestation in Austria during the 2004 European Parliament elections and in France, during both the 2005 referendum campaign and the May 2007 presidential elections, encouraged a popular belief in Turkey that EU membership was not a credible objective. A typical line of thought was that although accession negotiations had been formally opened, obstacles would be created to divert Turkish membership aspirations onto an inferior track of ‘privileged partnership’. Indeed, this option has been openly advocated by the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and by the former French Interior Minister and new President, Nicholas Sarkozy. There is no doubt that the popular media in Turkey reflected and communicated these internal debates and developments in Europe in a rather unbalanced fashion. The existence of considerable sources of support for Turkish membership at the elite level in the EU was not sufficiently emphasized and the critical nature of the decision to start accession negotiations was pushed into the background. There was a tendency to portray the EU as a monolithic bloc, composed of countries and groups unanimously opposed to Turkish membership. Moreover, little interest was shown in the details of the European constitutional debate.


Yet another issue which helped to reverse the tide in the direction of defensive nationalists was Cyprus. The general mood in Turkey was that the AKP government had done enough to support a compromise solution to the Cyprus debate. The Turkish Cypriots appeared to provide unequivocal support for the re-unification of the island under the Annan Plan. After the 2004 referendum, it was up to the EU to reward them and put pressure on President Papadopoulos and the Republic of Cyprus to complete their side of the bargain. But with the Republic of Cyprus safely in as a full EU member from May 2004, the EU appeared from a Turkish perspective to be unable to act impartially and fulfil its initial promises. Moreover, the EU made it increasingly clear that the resolution of the Cyprus dispute was a pre-condition for Turkish membership and those talks would be blocked if Turkey failed to open up its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels. For the majority of Turkish people, even for some liberal intellectuals, this appeared to represent a dead end. The typical response was that ultimately a choice had to be made between eventual EU membership and giving up Cyprus altogether, in the sense that what would be imposed as a solution would be the current Greek Cypriot government’s position of integrating the Turkish Cypriots as a minority group into their own society.


In addition to Cyprus, the resumption of PKK violence during the course of 2006 following a six-year ceasefire, helped to fuel nationalist sentiments even further. Again, the typical reaction was that EU circles were rather insensitive to terrorist activities in south-eastern Turkey, especially at a time when significant progress was being made in terms of extending far-reaching cultural rights to the Kurdish-speaking population. Soldiers have been dying in confrontation with the PKK and the tragic state of their families has been publicized in the media, causing widespread anger and resentment on the part of wide segments of society. Added to this, frequent references to the Armenian genocide in European circles, culminating with the French Parliament’s decision to approve a bill criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide as a thought crime, have constituted yet another powerful impulse contributing to the growth of anti-European sentiments in Turkey.


Growing euroscepticism has gone hand in hand with the growth of anti-American or anti-Western feeling. The human costs of the American invasion of Iraq, the plight of the Palestinians, undue pressure on Iran at a time when Israel appeared to have a free hand in terms of invading Lebanon and Europe’s paralysis to act, helped to generate an increasingly negative image of the West in a society where a majority of the population is deeply conservative and religious. Clearly all these developments placed the AKP government in a defensive position.


Perhaps the real turning point for the AKP came with the Leyla Şahin decision in November 2005, when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected the appeal to allow the wearing of the headscarf. The significance of this decision from the AKP’s viewpoint was that the space provided by the EU for promoting religious freedoms in Turkey appeared to be more restricted than was originally anticipated. Growing Islamophobia in Europe, mainly as a result of al-Qaeda and terrorist attacks, has contributed to a more restrictive position on issues of Muslim religious freedom. Hence, the possibility for the AKP to advance the demands of its core conservative constituency with EU backing increasingly appeared to be a rather unrealistic proposition. This left the party in an awkward position, in the sense that it made it increasingly difficult to reconcile the demands of its core constituency with the objective of maintaining a broad-based electoral coalition. There is a danger here of over-exaggerating the importance of this particular episode. We should take into account that the AKP has moved progressively to the centre of Turkish politics and is now considered by many analysts to be in line with the strong tradition of centre-right parties from Menderes’ DP in the 1950s to Özal’s ANAP in the 1980s. At the same time, one should not forget that the party has a strong Islamist connection, being a direct descendent of Erbakan’s Welfare Party of the 1990s. Both the leadership and the rank and file of the party have a strong religious orientation. Hence, the signals sent by the EU are likely to exercise a disproportionate influence over the perceptions and actions of the AKP leadership and its core electoral support.


Finally, it is important to emphasize that rising Euro-scepticism is a phenomenon that tends to affect most countries engaged in the process of accession negotiations. The new Central and Eastern European members of the EU, for example, encountered such a phenomenon during accession processes. The tight social, technical and environmental regulations that have to be implemented during the accession period are costly and evoke resistance, especially on the part of small business units. A radical process of restructuring is also taking place in the agricultural sector, with a large number of workers losing their jobs and being forced to find new sources of employment. A certain element of the falling support for EU membership documented in recent opinion polls might be a reflection of these ongoing and costly processes of economic adjustment. At the same time, the Turkish situation is different from that of its Central and Eastern European counterparts, due to the fierce intra-EU debate around Turkish membership and its relationship to Europe’s future self-definition, a debate which was virtually absent in the context of the previous Enlargement. This kind of debate, in turn, helps to create a domestic backlash in Turkey which renders the task of reformist elements far more difficult.


Why does the absence of a European-style social democratic party matter?


From the early months of 2005 onwards, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that the AKP government was progressively losing its initial self-confidence and pro-reform stance under the impact of a rather severe nationalist backlash. The new Anti-Terror Law, re-introducing a set of clauses designed to curb individual liberties, suggested a swing of the pendulum back to the old-style security state. Furthermore, the party was reluctant to abolish Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which has been used as a mechanism for restricting free speech on the grounds of insulting the Turkish state and the Turkish nation. A number of prominent writers and journalists including Orhan Pamuk, Elif Şafak and Hrant Dink found themselves standing trial accused of attacking the Turkish state. There is no doubt that without strong pressure from European political circles and public opinion, they would have faced extended trials and possible imprisonment. The AKP’s failure to repeal Article 301 raised considerable question marks about the party’s real commitment to democratization, beyond the narrow agenda of extending religious freedoms. On the Kurdish issue, the government’s approach appeared to converge with the traditional repressive approach of the Turkish state. Admittedly, however, the violent tactics of the Kurdish nationalists rendered the task of any government committed to dealing with the problem through further democratization particularly difficult.


It was also surprising that the EU accession process did not appear to be at the top of the policy agenda, despite the major decision to open accession negotiations in October 2005. The appointment of Ali Babacan, the Minister responsible for economic affairs, as chief negotiator signalled to both domestic and external circles that the accession process was not receiving sufficient attention. Given the complexity of the task involved, it would have appeared wiser to appoint an experienced figure above party politics to play a leadership role in the EU affairs. Similarly, the replacement of the Central Bank Governor became a heavily politicized issue. It would have been sensible to retain the former Governor, Süreyya Serdengeçti, a highly respected figure in financial and business circles. Increasingly, the party appeared to be promoting figures from its core electoral base to key government posts, providing substance to fears of creeping Islamization of Turkish society.


On the foreign policy front, some of the government’s key moves, notably during 2006, appeared unbalanced, raising question marks concerning the party’s Western or European orientation. The AKP government’s foreign policy was overly proactive in some areas. A good example was the decision to develop bilateral relations with the Palestine Authority’s new Hamas government without any attempt to secure the approval of the European powers. This was a strange move for the government of a candidate country already negotiating its accession. In contrast, there was no attempt to improve the rights of Christian minorities in Turkey, a point frequently emphasized in the

European Commission’s monitoring reports. A move in the direction of reopening the Halki Seminary, a school for the training of Orthodox clergy, would have had tremendous symbolic significance in European circles and would have given the government a certain leverage and breathing space with respect to the Cyprus issue. It would also have provided substance to the frequent claim that Turkey could contribute to the development of a genuinely multi-cultural Europe. The outcome of these unbalanced moves was a decline in the uniformly high level of support given to the government in most European countries. The AKP’s foreign policy moves increasingly projected the image of a party much more at home in the Middle East and the Islamic world, as opposed to a European-style party committed to secularism and a liberal vision of multiculturalism.



The list of such observations can be extended. They tend to indicate the structural limitations faced by a conservative, religious-based party in carrying out the Europeanization agenda. Electoral pressures, swings of public opinion and lukewarm signals from the EU are also relevant. However, these factors alone are not sufficient to provide a complete explanation of the deteriorating performance of the AKP government. What is also paradoxical is that the AKP has faced very little pressure from the left in the direction of extending and deepening the democratization agenda. The new Anti-Terror Law and the trials of key novelists or journalists, clearly marking a major step backwards in the recent democratization process, were only effectively opposed in the domestic sphere by liberal intellectuals, certain civil society organizations and fringe left-wing parties, such as the Freedom and the Solidarity Party (O ¨ DP). There was hardly any opposition from the established political parties at either end of the political spectrum. Indeed, without the pressure from key EU institutions such as the Commission and the European Parliament, domestic opposition would have made little impact in terms of blocking the path of such notorious trials.


This naturally brings us to one of the key paradoxes of party politics in Turkey, namely, the virtual absence of a European-style social democratic party with a mass following. Leader domination and the absence of effective intra-party democracy have been perennial weaknesses of Turkish political parties. Indeed, the major parties on the left in Turkey, namely, the DSP under Bülent Ecevit and the CHP under Deniz Baykal, can be considered as typical or even extreme examples of leader-dominated parties. Paradoxically, the apparently more conservative parties of Islamist origin have enjoyed a considerably higher degree of intra-party democracy than either of the principal left-of-centre parties.


In 2002, following a three-year absence, the CHP returned to Parliament as the official opposition. During the 2002–2007 parliamentary term, the party’s opposition focused single-mindedly on a narrow understanding of secularism. Baykal projected the image of a leader who was prepared to court the military in order to oust an Islamist party from power. Effectively relegated to the background were many of the issues that could have formed the basis of a social democratic agenda, such as the reform of the state’s economic role, the elimination of corruption, the decentralization of decision making and the provision of public services, the promotion of policies to encourage small and medium-sized businesses, and policies designed to combat gender inequality and women’s subordinate position in Turkish society. Indeed, after 2002, the party’s nationalistic reflexes came progressively to the fore, in such a way that the CHP has currently become virtually indistinguishable from Turkey’s major ultranationalist party, the MHP. Ironically, in recent years the CHP has established itself as one of the strongest elements of the defensive nationalist bloc and is clearly trying to extend its electoral base by capitalizing on the rising nationalist and Euro-sceptic mood in the country. Unusually in a party which locates itself on the centre-left of the political spectrum, the CHP leadership does not display any enthusiasm for democratization reforms. It is fair to say, for example, that the most vocal opposition to the proposed abolition of Article 301 originated from the CHP. Nor does the party seem likely to undergo a serious transformation in the foreseeable future. Baykal’s grip over the party apparatus remains heavily intact and the electoral setback in the municipal elections of 2004 failed to create a serious internal backlash.


According to many observers of Turkish politics who approach the issues from a left-libertarian perspective and who identify with social democratic parties of the ‘third way’, a major opportunity was lost in the summer of 2002. A group of MPs who resigned from the DSP formed the ‘New Turkey Party’ (YTP) under the leadership of İsmail Cem. Also associated with the party was Kemal Derviş, the architect of the post-2001 economic recovery programme. Unfortunately, the party’s fortunes faced a major blow when Derviş decided to join the CHP, anticipating that the new party would be unable to enter Parliament given the 10 per cent threshold level. This proved to be a tactical error, in the sense that Derviş and his colleagues with a globalist social democratic outlook were progressively marginalized within the CHP. The YTP itself was eventually dissolved. In retrospect, this was a lost opportunity in the sense that the YTP could have presented itself as a genuine progressive party on the left whose support could increase over time. A party of this type could have formed the

basis of a proactive opposition to the AKP. Its role as an active source of opposition could have been critical, in terms of counteracting the observed decline in the performance of the governing party on the democratization and EU fronts. For many secular liberals, the CHP is an increasingly unattractive option. However, such voters also find themselves in the awkward position of not being able to identify a genuine alternative to the AKP.


Conservative bias in the Turkish party system and the future trajectory of Europeanization in Turkey


Historically, Turkey–EU relations have been a cyclical process. But the end of each cycle appears to have brought Turkey closer to the European core. The period from 1999–2004 can be interpreted as the upturn of the cycle, whereas the period since 2004 clearly corresponds to the downward phase, culminating with the events which precipitated the early elections of July 2007. A sense of historical perspective allows us to go beyond the current negative mood prevailing in both Turkey and the EU and entertain a certain degree of optimism concerning the future trajectory of Europeanization in Turkey. Westernization and Europeanization have become central pillars of state policy and are unlikely to be reversed. Moreover, having reached the point of accession negotiations, it is highly improbable that the political and business elites would throw away the prospect of full EU membership.


On the positive side, the AKP displayed considerable flexibility during its period in office in 2002–2007. For example, it tried at various times to introduce legislation aimed at satisfying the demands and aspirations of its core group of conservative supporters. The bill involving the prohibition of alcoholic beverages in public places was a striking example of this kind of strategy. Yet, when this faced with serious public criticism, the party postponed such measures for the future, rather than pressing ahead single-mindedly. One can identify several examples of this kind of pragmatic approach to political management, which can be interpreted as an asset on the part of the AKP.


The AKP’s fortunes are also heavily dependent on the country’s economic performance. In spite of some negative developments on the political front, Turkey’s recent economic performance has been rather impressive. Inflation has fallen for the first time in three decades and during the past four to five years, the country has been recording the fastest rates of economic growth within the OECD. Although the distributional effect of this growth tends to be uneven, there is no doubt that large segments of Turkish society are benefiting from this process, at least in absolute terms. The EU anchor has played a critical role in this recovery, which seems to have the ingredients of a more durable process than any of the growth spurts of earlier decades which typically culminated in a major crisis. The economic benefits of a powerful EU anchor make it unlikely that a future AKP government would deviate from the Europeanization option and move in a totally different direction. Despite recent setbacks such as the ECHR decision on the headscarf, the AKP has a better chance of accomplishing its underlying agenda on religious freedoms under the EU umbrella. The Europeanization process of the past decade has been instrumental in transforming moderate Islamists into ‘Muslim democrats’ and softening (whilst clearly not eliminating) the underlying fault lines between the secular and religious elements of Turkish society.


Yet there are structural limits to the leadership role that an identity-based party such as the AKP can play in Turkey’s Europeanization process. Overemphasis on religion can become more of a liability than an asset over time, especially given rising anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe in the post-9/11 global environment. This makes it increasingly imperative to highlight the secular nature of Turkish society rather than its Islamic character. Turkey’s strategic advantage in this context will not be Islam per se, but the ability to render Islam compatible with secularism and democracy. In this context, it will be extremely important for a new kind of left to emerge and take root at the very centre of the Turkish party system. This kind of social democratic party would have a completely different agenda from the present-day CHP. It would certainly be committed to secularism but to a liberal version of it, which is not openly inimical to the religious phenomenon and respects individual choice up to the point that it does not threaten the liberal democratic basis of the republic. A liberal interpretation of secularism would allow more space for certain kinds of religious freedoms whilst at the same time preventing a kind of creeping Islamization of Turkish society, a phenomenon which most liberals would be afraid of. Such a party would also have a deeper commitment to the Europeanization project itself, rather than seeing the EU in a purely instrumental fashion as a transformative device for the Turkish economy and society. A political party or movement of this kind would also consider the specific ways in which Turkey could act together with other European states in contributing to the development of the European project. This kind of discussion and commitment to the goals of Europeanization will become progressively more important as the accession process gathers momentum.


A social democratic party of this type would be much more internationalist or globalist in its outlook than the existing Turkish parties. An internationalist approach is perfectly compatible with a patriotic vision and love of one’s country. In this context, one can think of state strategies which are likely to help Turkey benefit from the process of globalization. But the emphasis would not be on Turkey alone, but on Turkey as part of a broader European and international community. In that sense, this kind of vision would be quite incompatible with the kinds of defensive nationalism that we have outlined. A party of this kind would also exhibit the kind of vision necessary to make certain important compromises or radical moves which would have a tremendous impact in terms of accelerating Turkey’s Europeanization process. The party would be radical enough to consider such measures as the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus, the opening up of the Armenian border to free trade and other similarly radical moves which no political party in Turkey has been able to contemplate so far.


Finally, if further democratization or democratic consolidation is an absolutely critical aspect of the Europeanization process, the presence of a well-established centre-left party with strong internationalist and democratic credentials would play a crucial role. On issues like removing all the impediments to freedom of speech or combating gender inequality—the latter a critical deficiency of Turkish democracy—one should not expect the main impetus to come from the AKP or one of its other conservative variants. Thus, even if such a new social democratic party failed to obtain an electoral majority, it could still play a very important role as part of an active pressure group in close association with like-minded civil society organizations in Turkey. Furthermore, a political party of this kind would be an important channel for mobilizing and sustaining like-minded political actors in Europe who support Turkish membership.


Concluding observations


Turkey’s recent Europeanization process has been characterized by a number of paradoxical features. Civil society organizations, notably business associations, have played a more active role as members of the pro-EU/pro-reform coalition than the principal political parties. ‘Islamists’ appear to have been transformed more radically than their ‘secularist’ counterparts, with a conservative party of Islamist origin, the AKP, becoming the principal agent for Turkey’s European transformation following the 2002 elections. Turkish politics in the post-Helsinki era can be better conceptualized as a contest between globalists and defensive nationalists, cutting across the left–right political spectrum.


Yet another paradox concerns the absence of a European-style social democratic party. This represents a major weakness both domestically, for democratization reforms and externally, given that European social democrats constitute a major source of support for Turkish membership. The fact that the CHP, the principal opposition party in 2002–2007, is as conservative and nationalistic as some of its centre-right counterparts, clearly suggests that simple applications of the concepts of left and right contain limited analytical value in terms of identifying the degree of reform orientation of individual parties. A central observation is that party politics in Turkey has a certain conservative bias, with competition taking place primarily among different centre-right parties. Clearly, this kind of one-legged or one-dimensional party system constitutes an important handicap from the point of democratic consolidation.


The paper has also tried to explain the recent reversal in the fortunes of the Europeanization process in Turkey following the golden era of 1999–2004, due to a severe nationalist backlash which left the AKP government in a rather subdued and defensive position, especially in relation to the democratization component of the reform process. In the medium term, our guess is that a newly elected AKP government would be likely to re-activate and accelerate the Europeanization process. At the same, there exist structural limits to AKP’s reformism, especially on the democratization and foreign policy fronts. There is clearly a need for a new kind of social democratic party which would be globalist in orientation and have a deeper commitment to Europeanization and reform than any of the existing parties. Whether such a party will actually emerge is hard to predict at this point, although one could safely predict that the CHP will not transform itself in this particular direction.



[1] On the recent Europeanization and reform process in Turkey, see N. Tocci, ‘Europeanisation in Turkey: trigger or anchor for reform?’, and M. Müftüler-Baç, ‘Turkey’s political reforms and the impact of the European Union’, both in South European Society and Politics, 10(1), April 2005.

[2] On the role of civil society in Turkey’s Europeanization process, see F. Keyman and A. İçduygu (eds),Citizenship in a Global World: European Questions and Turkish Experiences, Routledge, London, 2005.

[3] On the transformation of political Islam and the AKP phenomenon, see H. Yavuz (ed.), The Emergence of a New Turkey: Islam, Democracy and the AK Parti, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2006.

[4] E. Özbudun, ‘Changes and continuities of the Turkish party system’, Representation, 42(2), 2006, pp. 129–137. For a major study on the Turkish party system, see S. Sayari and Y. Esmer, Political Parties and Elections in Turkey, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, CO, 2002.

[5] For the classic article on the centre–periphery paradigm, see S¸ . Mardin, ‘Centre–periphery relations: a key to Turkish politics’, Daedalus, Winter 1972, pp. 169–190.

[6] The ‘red apple coalition’ refers to an attempt to bring together nationalists on both sides of the political axis. Hard-core Euro-sceptics if one excludes the MHP and the CHP would be less than 10 per cent. However, if one includes the MHP and the CHP, whose Euro-scepticism is increasingly indistinguishable from hard Euro-scepticism, the electoral potential of this group would amount to at least 30 per cent.

[7] On Euro-scepticism in Turkey see H. Yilmaz, ‘Swinging between Euro-supportiveness and Euroscepticism: Turkish public’s general attitudes towards the European Union’, in H. Yilmaz (ed.), Placing Turkey on the Map of Europe, Boğaziçi University Press, Istanbul, 2005, pp. 152–181.

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