Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism IX

After a break dealing with proofs and indexes of two forthcoming books, a process that overlapped with getting a new university semester started, I can return to this series, which I last added to here. I set the scene of the late 1960s in Turkey, so I will turn to the next big upheaval, the Coup by Memorandum on March 12th 1971.

The Coup by Memorandum followed an attempted coup by far left/third worldist revolutionaries amongst the officer corps. Any unity created by the Kemalist project (secularist national-republican tradition of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk) was effectively ended, though this decomposition could be said about the whole period from the 1940s to 1971, especially after the adoption of multi-partyism by Atatürk’s successor, İsmet İnönü.

The 1971 coup forced the resignation of the conservative Prime Minister Süyleman Demirel and the implementation of a program to crush the far left, while also implementing some of the more left-wing ideas associated with the 1960 coup (particularly land reform and trade union rights). National View, the first Islamist party in Turkey, founded by Necmettin Erbakan, was closed down along with leftist groups so that an appearance of balance could be maintained in opposing the extremes on both sides. The reality, though, is that the level of state repression, including violence, and further including illegal violence (torture of the arbitrarily detained) directed against the far left, including Kurdish autonomists, drastically exceeded that directed against the far right.

The level of oppression that affected the mainstream right (in that the Justice Party was temporarily removed from government) and religious right was enough to create the idea that the right in Turkey was in some way the liberal part of Turkish politics. This not only influenced liberals, but even some people with very left wing views. It is part of how the AKP could come to power and hollow out state institutions, while subordinating civil society from 2002 onwards. The right continued with a militant anti-communist discourse, in all parts, while in part posing as the liberal friends of leftist rights, along with the rights of the Kurdish autonomists. This was pioneered by Turgut Özal in the 80s and taken further by the AKP. Presumably, Turkish liberals and leftists of the most anti-Kemalist sort have now learned a lesson, but possibly too late to benefit from it for at least a generation.

The military establishment’s implicit tolerance of the religious right, along with the ultranationalist grey wolves, in comparison to the secularist leftists tells an important story about the reality of ‘Kemalist domination’ of Turkey. It had evolved into a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a compromise with the more conservative parts of the Kemalist establishment, in which the Turkish-Islamic synthesis became more prominent and the ‘Kemalism’ became more and more gestural, including a pointless obsession with preventing young women with covered hair from entering the university, at the same time as the rights of non-Muslim minorities.

The picture is more complicated in that the anti-leftist post-memorandum government in 1971 closed the Greek Orthodox seminary in the Princes Islands off the Marmara Sea coast of Istanbul, as part of a general closure or nationalisation of private (largely foreign) institutions of higher education. This was a policy in accordance with the demands of the far left, including campus radicals. So a measure to deny rights to a Christian minority coincided with the demands of the far left and was undertaken by a notionally secularist government, in reality more concerned with crushing the far left and extending a conservative form of statism.

The above, in any case, did not resolve the real problems of political violence to which the 1971 coup responded. The period between the end of the very temporary government appointed in 1971 and the coup of 12th September 1983 was one of increasing political violence and extremism, with a lack of stable governments as the Justice Party lost majority support (though it remained in government most of the time). Neither it nor the Republican People’s Party were able to form stable coalitions or parliamentary agreements, while the economy suffered and political violence increased between far left and far right groups. Unexplained massacres of demonstrators and political assassinations accompanied barricades that violent groups put up to signify control of urban areas.

The National Assembly failed to elect a President of the Republic in 1980, despite 115 rounds of voting during increasing political and economic disruptions. When the army seized power again on the 12th September, there was widespread public support, but this was the most brutal of the military governments. Its attempt to create a more ‘stable’, i.e. authoritarian, democracy gave Turkey a constitution and system which enabled the AKP to come to power with 35% of the vote in 2002 and then erode the weak restraints on executive powers when held in conjunction with a one party majority in the National Assembly.

More on this in the next post.

Coup and Counter Coup V: Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey

Previous posts here, here, here and here. The post coup atmosphere created the impression of an invincible block of the AKP and the MHP, backed by some parts of Kemalist (Jacobinism alla turca) opinion, which would provide a massive majority for the Presidential republic desired by Erdoğan. The MHP did provide the votes in the National Assembly, for the super majority necessary to trigger a constitutional referendum. This was a complete turn about from the MHP’s previous position.

The background to this turn is partly in the state-PKK polarisation, but also in an internal female challenge to the MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli from Meral Aksaner. She is very popular with the Grey Wolf community and would have probably won a leadership election if a special party congress had been called. This became an issue in the courts, which did not in the end force the MHP leadership to act in accordance with an interpretation of laws on political parties (which are very prescriptive in Turkey), which in turn would require a congress. That Bahçeli was so resistant to calling a special congress tells its own story. He lost support within the MHP after their votes went down in the second general election of 2015, presumably also reflecting some previous accumulating weariness with his leadership. The whole story has raised suspicion of AKP supporting judges who twist the law in order to promote a MHP-AKP partnership, but there is no proof of this.

It can at least be said that Bahçeli hopes for some kind of deal in which the AKP-dominated media (that is a very large majority of the media, though not necessarily reflecting the inner views of journalists) treats the MHP gently, the AKP does not campaign against it, and the MHP can continue to get the minimum ten percent of votes necessary for a party list to have deputies in the National Assembly. He may also be hoping that in the Presidential system which Turks are voting on in the 16th April referendum, he or one of his surrogates will get one of the two vice-presidential positions and that the MHP has cabinet seats (which will all be appointed by the President, like the Vice-Presidential positions, with no parliamentary vote or scrutiny).

Meanwhile there is less of a story to tell about the Kemalists, who anyway do not have a clear leader or party. The CHP is their natural home but may be perceived as not pure enough. The bizarre character Doğu Perinçek provides a point of reference, but used to be pro-PKK and is generally just too strange and marginal. In any case, Perinçek has now recently and very publicly withdrawn his support from Erdoğan in reaction to Turkish support for the missile attack on a Syrian air force base. In general, the hardcore Kemalists have drifted back to opposing Erdoğan and supporting the CHP’s ‘No’ campaign. In at least some cases, there may have been second thoughts about how far exactly the government has gone in persecuting Gülenists, real and imagined, along with Kurdish movement politicians and activists; and a feeling that defending the Republic might also mean defending proper legal standards. Perinçek is at a vanguardist extreme where this is not an issue, but for those more influenced by foreign centre left parties and the wish for robust international standard rule of law, there has been a reaction, and a recollection of earlier objections to Erdoğan and his ambitions.

The Kurdish autonomy movement, the Grey Wolves, and the Kemalists will not disappear in Turkey. Positive developments in rule of law, constitutional democracy, individual liberties, and tolerant political culture require evolution in these movements. No government can come to power in Turkey which does not appeal to the concerns of at least one of these groups, and probably two. Erdoğan has never managed to completely absorb or eliminate any of them, though he has to some degree succeeded in keeping some appeal to both nationalist Turks and identity-oriented Kurds, particularly religious and socially conservative Kurds who may regard both CHP and HDP with suspicion. When the MHP and the Kemalist hardcore seemed to be behind Erdoğan after the coup, it seemed he might get more than 60% in the referendum. The MHP has now split in practice, and may well formally split after the referendum. Aksaner is the most popular MHP politician in Turkey and is campaigning for now. The CHP, and those most motivated by the CHP’s Kemalist roots, is solidly behind ‘No’. Right now, though ‘Yes’ may well win, it seems highly unlikely it will win with 60% plus and most expect a very tight vote. (to be continued)