Turkey Table of Contents

TURKEY'S POLITICAL SYSTEM faced four distinct but intertwined challenges in early 1995: accommodating the disaffected Kurdish ethnic minority; reconciling the growing differences, expressed with increasing stridency, between the secular elite and groups using traditional Islamic symbols to manifest their opposition to the political status quo; establishing firm civilian control over the military, which had a long history of intervening in the political process; and strengthening weak democratic practices and institutions. Turkey displays the trappings of a Western-style democratic government: a legislature whose deputies are elected by secret ballot, multiple and competitive political parties, and relatively free news media. However, Turkey also is a country where, on three occasions since 1960, military coups have overthrown elected civilian governments. The most recent military government, which seized power in September 1980, governed for three years. During the period of military rule, strict limits were imposed on personal and political rights and liberties. Political parties were banned, and prominent civilian politicians were barred from participating in political activity for up to ten years. The military justified its intervention on the premise that it was returning the country to the principles of Kemal Atatürk.

The supervised restoration of civilian rule began in November 1983 with National Assembly elections for which every candidate needed to obtain military approval. A civilian government with Turgut Özal as prime minister was formed after Özal's Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi--ANAP) won a majority of the seats in the new assembly. Özal worked with the president, General Kenan Evren, a leader of the 1980 coup, to reestablish the primacy of civilian authority. By November 1987, martial law decrees had been repealed in most of Turkey except Istanbul and the predominantly Kurdish provinces of the southeast, and the military refrained from interfering in the selection of candidates for National Assembly and local elections.

The strengthening of democratic practices, however, was hindered by a lack of consensus within the political elite on the issue of granting cultural freedom and local government autonomy to the country's Kurdish minority. The Kurdish question began to reemerge in 1984 after the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkere Kurdistan--PKK) initiated armed struggle against the state by attacking rural police posts in southeastern Turkey. The military's inability to suppress the militant PKK, combined with the international media attention generated in 1988 by the arrival of tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing chemical weapons attacks by their own government, made the Kurdish situation a leading topic of public discourse. Özal, whom the National Assembly elected president in 1989, became the first prominent politician to acknowledge openly that the Kurds were not merely "mountain Turks" but a separate ethnic group whose culture merited respect. Kurdish politicians opposed to the violent tactics and separatist ideology of the PKK responded by participating actively in the Social Democratic Party (Sosyal Demokrat Parti--Sodep) and the Social Democratic Populist Party (Sosyal Demokrat Halkçi Parti--SHP). Following the October 1991 National Assembly elections, a group of SHP-aligned Kurdish deputies, who previously had formed the People's Labor Party (Halkin Emek Partisi--HEP) to promote the full equality of Kurds and Turks within Turkey, organized themselves as a separate parliamentary party. However, many Turkish leaders were unable to distinguish between a separate Kurdish political party and a Kurdish separatist movement, and they campaigned to have the HEP banned and its members arrested, even though HEP deputies enjoyed parliamentary immunity. In a severe blow to democratic procedures, seven Kurdish deputies were arrested in March 1994; they were sentenced to long prison terms in December after being convicted of "crimes against the state."

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the intensification of the PKK insurgency in southeastern Turkey tended to enhance the status of the military as the guardian of the country's territorial integrity and security. Consequently, Turkish politicians tended to treat the armed forces cautiously, apparently as part of a strategy to dissuade senior officers from initiating yet another coup. Civilian wariness was evident in the government's acquiescence to a number of extrajudicial measures that violated basic due process rights, for example, military censorship of news coverage of operations against the Kurdish guerrillas. In 1993 and 1994, scores of Turkish journalists whose reportage was perceived by the military as endangering state security were detained for trials in special military courts. The military also forcibly deported more than 150,000 Kurds from some 850 villages in the southeast. Most of the evicted villagers subsequently resettled in the cities of western Turkey, where as many as one-half of the country's Kurdish minority was estimated to be residing in 1994. The presence of so many Kurds in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, and other large cities has contributed to a transformation of the Kurdish situation from a regional problem to a national one, whose characteristics include increasing ethnic polarization between Kurds and Turks.

Another cause of polarization is the ideological competition between Turkey's elite, which is imbued with the secular philosophy of Atatürk, and a new generation of grassroots leaders, influenced by Islamic ideas. Islamic political activists began organizing in 1983, after the government authorized the formation of political parties, and subsequently founded the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi--RP; also seen as Prosperity Party). Its candidates competed in both national and local elections, campaigning in middle- and lower-class urban neighborhoods with a consistent message. They blamed the country's economic and political problems on the alleged indifference of secular leaders to Muslim values. The Welfare Party steadily increased its share of the popular vote, and won more than sixty seats out of a total of 450 in the 1991 National Assembly elections. In nationwide local elections held in March 1994, Welfare Party candidates won 19 percent of the total vote, placing the party third behind the ruling True Path Party (Dogru Yol Partisi--DYP) of President Süleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Çiller and the main opposition Motherland Party. The Welfare Party's electoral successes included winning the mayor's office in Ankara, Istanbul, and twenty-seven other major cities, as well as in 400 smaller municipalities, including almost all the towns in the Kurdish provinces of the southeast.

In early 1995, Turkey was still in the process of trying to redefine its regional foreign policy in the wake of the two major international developments on its borders during 1991: the Persian Gulf War fought by the United States-led international coalition against Iraq and the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. Turkey's de facto participation in the Persian Gulf War--Ankara permitted United States aircraft to use a Turkish air base for bombing missions over Iraq--helped to strengthen ties with the United States, a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, the aftermath of that same war--hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds trying to flee into Turkey following the collapse of their uprising against the Iraqi government--was one of the factors that contributed to the intensification of the Kurdish problem within Turkey. The military efforts to suppress the PKK and the political efforts to silence Kurdish political leaders prompted international human rights organizations to accuse the Turkish government of systematic human rights violations. These charges complicated relations with the European Union, an economic organization that Turkey aspired to join as a full member, because several EU countries opposed Turkish membership on grounds that the country's practice of democracy fell short of EU standards. In addition, Turkey and its neighbor Greece, an EU state and a member of NATO, had failed to resolve their dispute over the status of Cyprus and their conflicting offshore claims in the Aegean Sea.

The consequences of the Soviet Union's dissolution potentially are more promising for Turkish diplomacy than the consequences of the Persian Gulf War. The fifteen countries that replaced the Soviet Union include five Asian states whose peoples speak Turkic languages. Özal and his successor as president, Demirel, promoted Turkey as a political and economic model for these Turkic-speaking countries. In keeping with this role, they sought to expand Turkey's influence through numerous bilateral agreements pertaining to cultural and economic relations. However, the long-term success of Turkey's efforts is not assured because both Iran and Russia are trying to extend or maintain their respective influence in Azerbaijan and Central Asia. Initially, Turkish leaders seemed to welcome the prospect of competition with Iran for influence in the region, and they confidently asserted the superiority of their secular state over Iran's Islamic model. By the end of 1993, however, Turkey--perhaps out of concern about Russian intentions--began to stress the need to work with Iran through multilateral regional arrangements such as the Economic Cooperation Organization.

The Constitution
National Assembly
President, Council of Ministers, and Prime Minister
Provincial and Local Government
Civil Service
Political Developments since the 1980 Coup
Political Parties
True Path Party
Social Democratic Populist Party
Motherland Party
Welfare Party
Democratic Left Party
Political Interest Groups

For more recent information about the government, see Facts about Turkey.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress