The Post-Kemalist Turkey: Straddling Populism and Pragmatism

For the fourth time since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country witnessed a coup—although this most recent will be marked as a poorly executed, failed attempt. Who was behind the coup, whether it was internally or externally motivated, what caused it, and why it turned out the way it did remain unanswered. While addressing these questions may take some time, employing a new political framework for analyzing the emergence of the post-Kemalist state—one in which there is no “hierarchical relationship between the state and society” and wherein society is no longer influenced by top-down forces of modernization and secularization—may prove central to understanding the direction Turkey’s politics might take.

Between 1960 and 1980, Turkey’s military suppressed radical leftist movements, working-class organizations, and Islamic movements. Despite this precedent, some leftist and revolutionary circles in Turkey have yet to lose their dogged faith in the idea that military intervention in politics is crucial to curbing Islamic movements.[1] Turkey’s old secular establishment, as represented by the military control over civilian politics, has slowly withered away, creating fresh challenges and opportunities for the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). It has, in essence, crystallized its struggle to navigate populism and pragmatism.

In a fundamental sense, the July 15, 2016 coup indicated a shift away from Kemalism and illustrated a new path for the military to potentially fall from power. As things stand, the so-called Turkey’s deep state—an old but all too familiar term to describe the military’s power structure—has lost its luster, as its political influence and ideological appeal to the wider public and opposing political parties have been drastically curtailed.

The simultaneous decline of the military power and the rise of Islamists is likely to boost President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan authoritarian tendencies, which includes cracking down on domestic dissent – while also purging certain senior legal figures within the judiciary and thousands of police officers, as well as rogue elements within the country’s military, public media, and educational institutions.

Since the coup attempt, Turkish authorities have ordered the closure of 45 newspapers, three news agencies, 16 television channels, 15 magazines, and 29 publishers. Among them are the daily Zaman newspaper and the Cihan News Agency due to possible links with the transnational Islamic Gülen movement. Likewise, the government has also issued arrest warrants and purged tens of thousands soldiers, police officers, academics, journalists, and government employees for also allegedly having ties to the Gülen movement.

The recent coup attempt vividly demonstrated not only the endurance of Turkey’s civilian democracy, but also the emergence of a post-Kemalist republic that has fostered civilian control over the military. The birth of Turkey’s post-Kemalist society has been evident since the early 2000s, following the victory of the AKP. Today, the republic is marked by a Turkish military in total disarray and a country that faces ongoing threats from the Islamic State (ISIS) and Kurdish separatist movements.

The disorder and confusion within Turkey’s military underscores not only the shattering of a secular, modern Turkish identity once represented by the army, but also the military’s diminished reliability as a partner to the West in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. Army and NATO voiced concerns as to whether many senior Turkish officers, with whom American officials have shared intelligence, are now either awaiting trial or in jail.

Turkey’s constitution gives the military the authority to intervene in politics when the survival of the state is jeopardized—an interpretation that has militarized Turkey’s politics and long given the military major leverage over the country’s politics. The army initiated a string of coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997—the latter of which resulted in the military pressuring Turkey’s Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of power. These military-led efforts aimed at ousting authoritarian parties from power had widespread popular support, especially in 1980, when military interference was preceded by deteriorating economic conditions, a weak government, the politicization of the state’s administration, and growing political violence.[2] Simultaneously, these coups were largely symptomatic of the highly militaristic culture heavily shaped by the ideological influences of Turkey’s 1920s Kemalist revolution.

The military, long seen as the “guardian of Turkish democracy,” has lost its political prowess with the advent and rise of the AKP. Experts have since warned that a “modern Turkey” can no longer fit into the straightjacket of Kemalism, as the nation continues to see a dramatic increase in a multitude of identities, interests, and views in its journey down a democratic path. [3]

Kemalism was arguably a built-in ideology in the constitution that laid the ground for a “tutelage democracy” overseen by the military and safeguarded by the judiciary. Kemalism was, in fact, the basis of the single party rule from 1925 to 1945, establishing the supremacy of the state over society and the military over civilians.

By contrast, AKP’s initial steps toward a more inclusive politics, and its efforts at demilitarization, raised expectations that the country was moving toward democratizing programs unlike the past. However, such hopes were dashed in light of the endemic corruption, concentration of power in the executive branch, and growing de-facto presidential system found under Mr. Erdoğan’s authoritarianism.[4]

Despite Erdoğan’s authoritarian style of leadership and his government’s corruption, that his administration successfully mobilized citizens to neutralize the coup illustrated just how badly fractured the Turkish military is. Turkish citizens’ ability to retake Ataturk Airport from the military was dramatically spectacular, signifying the resilient effectiveness of the populist brand of politics in Turkey. The failed coup could potentially force the military from its self-appointed political policing role.

The bigger struggle for Erdoğan now, however, is balancing pragmatism and populism. The balance between populism (identity politics more generally) and good governance is absolutely essential to the survival of the AKP. Promoting socioeconomic progress and embracing a populist agenda are linked in complex, contradictory ways. Thus far, Erdoğan has averted populist economic policies because Turkey’s economic imperatives and interdependence, as well as its security policies, have impacted long-held populist rhetoric.

Ultimately, Turkey’s pragmatism and emphasis on economic prosperity is likely to win-out over populism. Ankara’s role in Eurasia has expanded from that of a major transit country into a full-fledged regional energy hub, indicating a broad normalization of political and economic relations with its neighbors. Moreover, a fear of secular nationalistic backlash would likely confine the degree to which the pendulum would swing toward populism.

That said, Turkey’s fractured politics and society will not necessarily pose a threat to the region’s stability. For NATO, maintaining stability—not democracy—is a key reason it supports Erdoğan, and perhaps helps account for Erdoğan’s tenacity and long tenure. Turkey’s secular republic may be slowly melting away, but it remains unclear if Turkey’s politics has gravitated toward fortifying a right wing, Islamic-oriented republic.

Pushing the country toward adopting a conformist view of Islamic precepts is likely to further polarize an already divided Turkish society. What remains key is just how Turkey navigates populist and pragmatic politics at home. Observers worry that Erdoğan’s authoritarian streak makes him unsuited to mediating this paradox. The record shows that he has pursued pragmatic politics throughout his career and will be expected to do so for the rest of his tenure in the office, regardless of whether he is capable of transforming Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential one with notably enhanced constitutional powers.

One nagging question remains: how would Erdoğan reconfigure the army that has historically represented one of the most modern, secular pillars of the state? Observers warn that the arrests and suspensions post-coup are likely to strip the military and police forces of its most experienced officers, undermining the Turkish military and police at a time when the country faces a serious threat from ISIS. Likewise, replacing judges and prosecutors with AKP loyalists could weaken the judiciary and provoke resentment nationwide. For Erdoğan, perhaps this may pose the single most serious challenge along the route he takes to reinterpret Turkey’s national interests.

[1] Ozgur Mutlu Ulus, The Army and the Radical Left in Turkey: Military Coups, Socialist Revolution and Kemalism, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011, p. 197.

[2] Roger Owen, State, Power, and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East, Third Edition, New York: Routledge, 1882, pp. 85-89.

[3] Ihsan Dagi, “Why Turkey Needs a Post-Kemalist Order,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 2012, pp. 29-36; see p. 36.

[4] Mine Eder, “Turkey,” in Ellen Lust. Ed., The Middle East, Fourteenth Edition, Washington: CQ Press, 2017, pp. 854-894; see p. 894.