The Changing National Elite

Turkey Table of Contents

Turkey's national political elite is a self-perpetuating group; membership is based on a demonstrated commitment to secularism and the other principles of Atatürk. During the initial years of the republic, the elite was recruited from the Ottoman bureaucracy and military. Its members thus shared a sense that they knew best how to carry out policies that served the interests of the state and country. In addition, most of the early republican elite had been involved with or sympathetic to the pre-World War I Ottoman political parties that had espoused major political and economic reforms. Atatürk himself, for example, had been a member of the Unionist Party while serving as an Ottoman army officer in Macedonia (see The Young Turks, ch. 1). During the 1920s and 1930s, the ruling elite accepted the need for significant, even revolutionary, reforms and generally embraced Atatürk's programs enthusiastically. In effect, service to the country and higher education, rather than wealth per se, became primary qualifications for acceptance into the political elite as early as 1930.

The national political elite essentially ruled Turkey unchallenged for more than thirty years. Beginning in the 1950s, however, the socioeconomic changes resulting from government policies provided numerous and varied opportunities for the accumulation of private capital in finance, commerce, trade, and industry. The emergence of a wealthy business class inevitably led to the development of class-specific political interests and ambitions. Because of this new business elite's experience in entrepreneurial activities rather than the bureaucracy, its members' views differed sharply from those of the established ruling elite, which generally supported state intervention in the economy. Increasing competition between the two elites over appropriate state policies was one of the reasons for the polarization that characterized Turkey's national politics during the 1970s.

A nongovernment professional elite also gradually emerged after 1950, including architects, engineers, lawyers, managers, physicians, and university professors, who were not necessarily unified in their political views. Nevertheless, as a group they tended to resent what they perceived as the patronizing, even authoritarian, political attitudes of the ruling elite. This group's frustration with the political system, emerging at the same time as dissatisfaction within the business elite, highlighted the need for genuine political reform. During the 1970s, some members of the ruling elite recognized this need, but they were unable to enact remedial legislation.

The 1980 military coup symbolized the deep divisions that had emerged within the ruling elite over strategies for dealing with the political demands of diverse and competitive interest groups. The officers and their civilian supporters, who included some factions of the business elite, wanted the state to impose social order through the type of authoritarian methods they believed had worked successfully under Atatürk. They were sufficiently angry with dissenting members of the ruling elite to arrest the most prominent politicians, including two former prime ministers. The coup in effect split the ruling elite into two ideological factions that continue to coexist uneasily in the mid-1990s. One elite group believes in the efficacy of a strong government to maintain social and political stability; the other elite faction believes in accommodating interest group demands that do not threaten the national cohesion of the country and generally supports broadening political pluralism.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress