Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VIII

Continuing from Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VII.

The Democrat Party returned to power under the name of Justice Party (a name possibly referring to ‘justice’ for Adnan Menderes, who was certainly executed as the result of a very politicised trial, but was no genuine martyr of democracy) in 1965. This hint at an enduring idealisation of Menderes sets up many problems in Turkey to the present day.

Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan has appealed to the same theme, which has very evidently turned under his rule into a drive for ‘revenge’ against anyone who supposedly defies the National Will.

The National Will, in practice, is based on preserving a monolithic majoritarianism based on ethnic Turkish nationalism and Sunni religious identity along with loyalism to the state under its rightful leader, who looks more like a Reis (a traditional chief) than the head of a liberal democracy.

This process begins under Süyleman Demirel (1924-2015) as leader of the AP (short for Adalet Partisi, the Turkish words for Justice Party). Demirel himself was despised by Erdoğan, and in the end sided with his old enemy, the Republican People’s Party, against Erdoğan’s AKP. However, AKP stands for Adalet ve Kalkınması Partisi, which is Justice and Development Party, so clearly Erdoğan placed himself in Demirel’s tradition. Demirel was Prime Minister or President for nearly half of the time from 1965 to 2000, but never acquired the status of a giant in national history, as such a long occupation of the highest offices of state might suggest.

The most grotesque single item of evidence of Demirel’s desire for revenge over the 1960 coup came in the case of Deniz Gezmiş, a leading figure on the revolutionary left, who was arrested for the kidnapping of two American soldiers. Gezmiş was executed in 1972, along with two associates, after Demirel had said ‘we want three’, in a clear reference to the execution of Menderes and two of his ministers in 1961, and possibly referring to Gezmiş’ self-declared Kemalism (though he is usually seen as more a revolutionary Marxist). We have two major problems in Turkish politics in one here. Firstly the attraction of some parts of the left to political violence; secondly the unendingly vengeful attitude of the right towards the 1960 coup and a belief in state violence as the solution to the far left.

State violence against the far left has been constant in the Republic. As long as there was Soviet Socialist Russia and then the USSR, the far left tended to be seen as part of an assault by a traditional national rival, whether run by a Tsarist or Bolshevik regime. This combined with a never ending fear of the weakness of liberal democracy in the face of possibly existential enemies in which political compromise has been seen as treason.

The continuing idolisation of Gezmiş, who was it must be said an attractive and charismatic person, who died young and very good looking, by the far left continues a vicious cycle in which the state establishment under various governments treats any expression of far left views as subversion, only one stop at most from outright terrorism, while the far left can then see violence as politically legitimate. Not everyone who continues the memory of Gezmiş advocates violence and we can only hope he does become a symbol of revolutionary purity detached from advocacy of political violence.

The existence of the revolutionary groups where Gezmiş operated itself tells us something about the difficulties of the 1960s. Economic growth and stability was reasonable, but there was no state understanding of how to incorporate the most disaffected parts of society. The far left was not very working class in its base, which has a stronger social core in Aleviism, that is a heterodox off shoot of Shia Islam, which constitutes the largest religious minority in Turkey.

The strongest geographical concentration of Alevis is in the Tunceli (also known as Dersim) region. These Zazaki (Persian dialect) speaking Alevis, along with Alevis elsewhere, had an antagonism to the Republican People’s Party as a result of extreme suffering during state-Zazaki Alevi conflict in Tunceli during the later 30s. However, when the Democrat Party-Justice Party line became the new state establishment and expression of Sunni supremacy, Alevi support switched to the Republican People’s Party and has stayed with it ever since as a major component. The far left also has a strong Alevi component, expressed at its most extreme in the DHKP/C terrorist/insurgent group.

Support for the far left reflects to some degree the incapacity of the state to deal with Alevi identity, while also failing to adapt to the kind of radicalised student political culture of the late 60s that existed on a global level. A significant part of this international trend comes from the growth of higher education to accommodate more people from non-elite backgrounds, which meant an increasing proportion of students with little hope of achieving the elite status more easily achieved by earlier students.

Pesant families were moving from the land into illegally constructed buildings in city suburbs, creating a target audience for the far left, though providing more support overall for the most conservative aspects of the right. The ultranationalist right found political expression in the Republican Peasants’ National Party after its take over by Alparslan Türkeş. Türkeş had announced the 1960 coup on the radio, but in politics deviated from the Kemalist ideology of the military government, certainly by the late ’60s when Türkeş went on pilgrimage to Mecca and changed the name of the party to Nationalist Action, with a party emblem of three crescent moons, referring to an Ottoman military standard.

The Nationalist Action Party was named as such in 1969, the year that Necemettin Erbakan founded National View. National View is a Muslim conservative movement which takes much of its inspiration from the Arab-based Muslim Brotherhood. The National View of Erbakan evidently refers to Turkish nationalism. The nationalist movement had secular aspects and the religious conservative movement had aspects of a Muslim universalism beyond nations, though particularly directed towards the Arab world, so seeking a kind of authentic source for religion. On the whole, the Grey Wolf/Idealist Hearth nationalists of Türkeş and the National View religious conservatives of Erbakan converged. This tendency is often referred to as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis and has roots going back to the late 19th century, but is mostly thought of as something that grew in the 60s.

More on this and related topics in the next post.

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism VII

Now this series moves onto the first government that resulted from a peaceful electoral transfer of power in Turkish and Ottoman history, the government of Adnan Menderes and the Democrat Party (DP), which came to power in 1950.

The DP was more open to religious conservative sentiment and more free market oriented, though that has to be understood in a very relative way. In power, the DP expanded the number of state enterprises, used economic clientelism to generate business backing, and tolerated an inflation rate of about 20%, though it did also open the economy more to international investment. It was not only more open to religious conservatism (which included creating more pressure for school students to take religion classes and openly Islamist attitudes from some DP politicians), but had a highly nationalist aspect to it, which overlapped. This can be seen most dramatically in the case of the attacks on Greeks in Istanbul in 1955, leading to systematic destruction of property and the loss of about 30 lives.

Though the Menderes government tried to deny involvement and engaged in a token crackdown on ultranationalist groups afterwards, there is plenty of eye-witness information that Democrat Party officials orchestrated mob violence and the police were ordered to remain passive. The army also played a role, drawing on the NATO Gladio structure (groups preparing to resist Soviet occupation, which have also been associated with violent deep state activities in Italy and Spain), to establish a covert command-and-control group. The riots were orchestrated in reaction to armed Greek resistance to British rule in Cyprus, which was seen as threatening the reduction of Cypriot Turks to a second class minority in Cyprus.

We see here the intersection of religious chauvinism (as in Muslim hatred of Orthodox Christians), nationalist chauvinism (as in Turkish hatred of Greeks), inter-state conflict (Greek-Turkish rivalry over the future of Cyprus), inter-communal tension in a historically connected territory (Greek-Turkish rivalry in Cyprus which was an Ottoman possession for centuries), decolonisation (the breakdown of British colonialism in Cyprus) and Cold War covert security structures.

We also see here how troubled claims of the Turkish right to offer something more liberal than Kemalism are. There has been a persistent tendency of some Turkish liberals to go along with this for Menderes in the 50s, Türgüt Özal in the 80s, and Erdoğan in the 2000s and even early 2010s. This is all highly misguided, as will be discussed in future posts. For now, we can concentrate on the record of the Menderes government in encouraging and instrumentalising a combination of ethnic and religious chauvinism, along with growing attacks on the freedom the press and freedom of opposition culminating in the imposition of martial law in early 1960.

The Democrat Party pioneered the politics now followed by the AKP, in which democracy means the dominance of the majority (understood in artificially homogenous terms) in terms of political processes and officially promoted culture combined with the squeezing out of minority and oppositional politics and culture. Elements of economic liberalisation become drowned in state cronyism and inflationary debt-financed vote buying. This is what we might now call authoritarian populism, illiberal democracy, or electoral authoritarianism. Sad to say this has taken place with the assistance of those in Turkey who describe themselves as liberal.

This bad understanding of democracy was promoted by the manner in which the Menderes government ended. A military coup led to: government by military council, the dissolution of the Democrat Party, the arrest of DP politicians, the subsequent execution of Menderes and two other ministers, the adoption of a new constitution by referendum during the military government, the creation of a military-dominated national security committee with power to place issues on the cabinet agenda, and the encouragement of nationalisation.

The complication in this highly illiberal process is that aspects of the new constitution were good from a liberal point of view, including the creation of an elected senate (the first upper house in republican history) and the legalisation of the socialist left, which had been previously heavily squeezed by both the Republican People’s Party and the Democrat Party. Some of the more liberal members of the Democrat Party contributed to the constitutional revision process, so we just can see the process as a straightforwardly anti-liberal process, however undesirable the process was from a liberal point of view.

The political change through coup left disturbing elements in later Turkish political life, which are still with us: the attitude that military intervention is a normal way to end political crisis, the identification of opposition to government with the formulation of a military coup, a victim-desire for revenge mentality amongst the most socially and religiously conservative parts of Turkish society.

The army colonel who proclaimed the 1960 coup on state radio, Alparslan Türkeş, was already known as a militant nationalist. He was purged from the military government along with other colonels who were formulating some kind of long term radical authoritarian regime, and carried on in politics as the most prominent figure in the history of Turkish ultranationalism.

İsmet İnönü enjoyed his last period in power from 1961 to 1965 as Prime Minister. Süleyman Demirel emerged as the new big figure on the centre right. Türkeş and his associates entered politics through infiltration of the National Peasant Party, which broke away from the Democrat Party in the 60s with a more aggressively religious and nationalist program. More on this and later developments in the next post.