Turkey, Politics, Analysis

OPINION - 2018 Turkish elections: End of the Turkish Ottimati?

Turkey, Muslim world’s first truly democratic republic, moving to more pluralistic, democratic, egalitarian political future

OPINION - 2018 Turkish elections: End of the Turkish Ottimati?


“[The republic] had had a beginning and would consequently have an end; and this rendered crucial both the problem of showing how it had come into being and might maintain its existence, and that of reconciling its end [aim] of realizing universal values with the instability and circumstantial disorder of its temporal life.”

-- J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition

Turkey’s early elections, originally scheduled for late 2019 but moved up to June 2018, ultimately resulted in few surprises. President Recep Erdoğan received 52.5 percent of the vote, almost exactly what objective polls had indicated for the entire two-month campaign period. The Justice and Development (AK) Party received slightly fewer votes, 42.5 percent, than polls had indicated, but still 20 percent and 10 million votes more than its nearest competitor. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) had been the unknown, with polls showing its votes right on the parliamentary threshold, 10 percent. In the end, crossover votes from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) pushed the HDP into parliament.

The AK Party, along with its campaign ally the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), will now have a parliamentary majority that should facilitate passing reform legislation. But replacing the now much-amended Turkish Constitution, still the same basic document written by the Turkish military after the 1980 coup, looks to be out-of-reach. For the next five years, the main parliamentary issue will be whether the opposition can evolve into actual policy-producing organizations with platforms and visions, or continue to exist simply as political negatives, determined only to impede legislative processes.

In sum, this should mean political stability and continuity until the next round of general elections in 2023 (though local elections are still coming next year). That also means the Turkish society’s current trends will continue to develop, which is what should interest social scientists and historians. In line with that reasoning, political pundits are scrutinizing the election results for clues to Turkish public opinion. But what strikes me most about the election is how predictable the results actually were for anyone who pays attention to the nexus between sociology and politics.

Sociology key to Turkish politics

For the past several years, I’ve been searching for ways to explain contemporary developments in Turkish society in a manner comprehensible to people who do not live in the country, and who do not have direct or detailed knowledge of Turkey’s society, history, culture, etc. A fruitful route for doing this is through comparisons: though one has to be careful when comparing different societies or time periods, such comparisons can be illuminating if explained correctly.

A main stumbling block is the preconceived notions that many non-Turkish observers have – that Turkey was democratic since the Ottoman Empire was extinguished, that Turkish state institutions have always been modern and comparable to those in Europe or the U.S., that the Turkish people were in control of their fate and/or institutions.

Such conceptions are actually false. In reality Turkish democracy, though present in the basic sense that elections have been open, transparent, and free since 1950, was limited by the control that the Turkish military and its supporters in state institutions maintained and exercised over Turkish society. The domination of Ottoman, then Turkish state institutions by bureaucrats and, later, of the military which emerged in the mid-19th century and continued until about a decade ago, when the Turkish military – after repeated and often violent interventions -- was removed from politics.

The past 10 years can thus be characterized as a conflict between democratically elected (AK Party) and non-elected civilian actors (FETO, the Fetullah Terrorist Organization) for control over state institutions. A main result of the July 15, 2016 attempted coup is that democratic oversight of Turkish state institutions has been strengthened. That, in turn, is a main reason for the dramatically increased effectiveness of the Turkish security forces’ efforts against the armed and violent organizations targeting Turkish security forces and civilians. This trend will continue due to the change to a presidential system, continued political stability, and renewed state institutional reform efforts.

Comparing the Florentine and Turkish Republics

But how should foreign observers who want to understand the essence of Turkey’s political developments approach these events? Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that certain aspects of the Renaissance-era Florentine Republic, the most important experiment with republican politics between the ancient and modern worlds, can help observers grasp key elements of Turkey’s ongoing political development.

Florence is fascinating for many reasons, but one of the most compelling is that its experiment in guild republicanism, which endured for 250 years, anticipated on a micro scale many of the socioeconomic trends that have made modern mass democracies possible. [The information on Florence below is summarized from John M. Najemy’s A History of Florence, 1200-1575]

Florence’s political life was marked by a three-way socio-political competition. Preeminent were Florence’s elite, non-aristocratic families, who sometimes referred to themselves as ottimati and gained their status through banking, commerce, and patronage. The second group, the guildsmen, were referred to as the popolo, and were engaged in the various economic activities that made Florence Europe’s most important Renaissance city. The guilds were also divided into major and minor guilds.

The last group, making up the mass of the city’s population, were the laborers doing the manual work in a variety of different professions, from construction to textiles. In theory, the guilds held equal rights to political participation, but in reality, the elite families and major guilds dominated and competed with each other for political offices and decision-making (and, thus, also wealth distribution).

The important issue here is that Florence’s republican traditions banned anyone with aristocratic titles from holding political office, so its political debates took place exclusively among non-aristocratic citizens. This was taken to the extreme of declaring any particular family nobility if any of its members looked to be gaining to much political influence in the city, which removed that family from political office and, consequently, from participation in the city’s political life.

The turning point in Florence’s political history was 1378. That year the minor guildsmen and Florence’s laboring classes attempted -- succeeding briefly – to assert their voice and rights in Florence’s politics. Political equality for all of Florence’s guilds was re-established and, taking the political ideology one step further than ever before, guilds for Florence’s artisan and laboring classes were also established. That step realized what Florence’s republican political traditions and values had always suggested – that all of Florence’s inhabitants had the right to political representation -- but had never actually granted to the greater portion of Florence’s community. Florence’s laborers were referred to as Ciompi, referring to the clogs worn by workers in the woolen cloth industry, so those events are remembered as the Ciompi Revolution.

When Ciompi political demands turned radically democratic, demanding participation in political decisions equal to their presence in Florentine society, the other guilds suppressed them with street violence. The coalition of major and minor guilds then remained in control of Florentine politics until 1382, but an anti-democratic precedent had been established. After the events of 1378, the alliance between major and minor guilds would endure only three years. Florence’s elite families would become permanently opposed to granting political rights to the guilds, trusting only ottimati to make rational political decisions. The ottimati eventually eliminated guilds from Florentine politics with the support of major guildsmen, who feared the minor guilds and laborers more than elite domination. The ottimati would consequently remember 1378 with horror and feelings of class hatred.

The Florentine elite’s aversion to any sort of non-elite involvement in Florence’s politics would lead step-by-step to, first, oligarchy, and then the emergence of the Medici as Florence’s premier financial and political force in the 15th century’s first decades. Medici domination would spell doom for Florence’s republican traditions; eventually a Medici would be made duke of Florence in the 1530s, then grand duke of Tuscany in the 1560s, marking the end of Florence’s experiments with republican governments.

A Turkish ottimati

Turkey has a socio-political background comparable to that of Renaissance Florence on several different points. The most important is that the Ottoman Empire did not have a hereditary nobility, and even the powerful provincial families that emerged in the 18th century never had the same status as European nobilities. Someone as powerful as Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt had to expend great effort to make his position inheritable for his children, for example.

For that reason, a new socio-political elite began to form as modern Ottoman state institutions emerged in the mid-19th century. The first were diplomats and bureaucrats, then military officers as the Ottoman military was slowly transformed into a modern force. During the 1839-1876 Tanzimat Era, intellectuals also emerged as Ottoman society gradually became more educated, a small reading public emerged, and politics moved into a nascent public sphere. But the Tanzimat Era was also a time when state elites gained the power to make political decisions, and to impose their ideas – largely formed by imported European concepts such as positivism – on Ottoman society.

In 1876, those same state elites engineered the declaration of an Ottoman Constitution, complete with a parliament and elections, but the elections were not democratic and parliament had no real political power. This remained the case even as the Ottoman Empire transformed – mostly through a few name changes and the parliament’s transfer to Ankara – into the Turkish Republic in the 1920s. The control exercised by state elites did not alter, and the ideas that they imposed on Turkish society remained almost exclusively European, and devoted to constructing a nation-state with a Turkish identity.

After 1950, the Turkish people finally had their voice heard in political decisions, but a new problem presented itself. State institutions were still in the hands of Turkey’s ottimati, and they had no intention of relinquishing their access to state resources and privileges. The result has been repeated military interventions over the past 60 years as the Turkish ottimati’s military branch acted to prevent their loss of political control to Turkey’s democratically elected politicians and their constituents. But unlike what occurred in the Florentine Republic, after Turkey’s democratic precedent was established, Turkish citizens steadfastly returned their chosen politicians to decision-making capacity after those military interventions.

In retrospect, the era from 1950-2007 may be remembered as an extended, Turkish version of the Ciompi Revolution, during which the mass of Turkey’s citizens realized the democratic ideals that had always been present in the Turkish Republic’s political rhetoric, but which they had never been allowed to enjoy. Turkish society, which remained disenfranchised until 1950 and unable to assert its democratic will over state institutions until 2007, looks to have emerged victorious. When another non-elected group, FETO, attempted to violently take control of Turkey’s state institutions in July 2016, Turkish citizens took to the streets to ensure that their democratic rights would not be taken from them again. Unlike the Florentine Ciompi, Turkey’s masses triumphed.

But what about the Turkish ottimati? Their political representatives, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has maintained a 25 percent voting bloc for many decades, but the change to a presidential system means that they can no longer depend on parliamentary influence over political decisions and access to spoils. If they want to engage with the Turkish people politically, they now must develop candidates who can appeal to 50 percent of the electorate; that also means they must develop a political platform that provides realistic solutions to the problems faced by Turkish society.

The Turkish ottimati’s fear of the lower classes did not enable them to maintain permanent control over Turkish state institutions. Just the opposite, they cut themselves off from the rest of Turkish society, rendering themselves unable to understand the changes taking place in Turkish society, especially the rising demand for truly democratic state institutions that provide effective services and justice for citizens.

In other words, the Turkish Republic has taken a different route than the Florentine Republic. When Turkey’s disenfranchised demanded their democratic rights, they were able to maintain their demands despite the sometimes violent resistance offered by Turkey’s elite political actors. Instead of a slow degeneration into domination by one elite family, Turkey, as the Muslim world’s first truly democratic republic, is making its way to a more pluralistic, democratic, and egalitarian political future.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency

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