Political Interest Groups

Turkey Table of Contents

The decades following World War II saw a proliferation of interest groups that evolved into increasingly active and politically conscious associations. The growth of these groups was part of a general trend toward a more politicized and pluralistic society. This trend resulted primarily from factors such as the advent of multiparty politics, economic development and the accompanying expansion of opportunity, and improvements in communications (see Mass Media, this ch.). Increasing urbanization, rising literacy rates, rapid industrial expansion, and the exposure of hundreds of thousands of Turkish guest workers--most from villages and lower-class urban areas--to new ideas and customs in Western Europe also contributed to the politicization of the populace. As a consequence, a growing number of voluntary associations sprang up to promote specific interests, either on their own, through representatives in parliament, or through the cabinet and senior bureaucrats. These associations enabled various social groups to exercise a degree of influence over political matters. The activities of groups such as labor unions, business associations, student organizations, a journalists' association, and religious and cultural associations promoted public awareness of important issues and contributed to a relatively strong civil society.

The autonomy of civic groups vis-à-vis the state has been a persistent political problem since 1960. During periods of military rule and martial law, the independence of such groups often was circumscribed (see Crisis in Turkish Democracy, ch. 1). Following the military takeover in September 1980, for example, strict limits were placed on the political activities of civic associations; some of these restrictions remained in force in early 1995. For example, the 1982 constitution, like that of 1961, affirms the right of individuals to form associations but also stipulates that the exercise of this right must not violate the "indivisible integrity of the state." Furthermore, associations are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of language, race, or religion, or from trying to promote one social class or group over others. Civic associations also are forbidden to pursue political aims, engage in political activities, receive support from or give support to political parties, or take joint action with labor unions or professional organizations. In addition, legislation enacted in 1983 prohibits teachers, high school students, civil servants, and soldiers from forming associations, and bans officials of professional organizations from participating actively in politics.


By dint of the influence it has exerted on politics since the early days of the Turkish republic, the military constitutes the country's most important interest group. Atatürk and his principal allies all were career officers during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Although Atatürk subsequently endeavored to separate the military from political affairs, he nevertheless considered the army to be the "intelligentsia of the Turkish nation" and "the guardian of its ideals." By the time of Atatürk's death in 1938, the military had internalized a view of itself as a national elite responsible for protecting the Six Arrows of Kemalism. Prior to 1960, the military worked behind the scenes to ensure that the country adhered to the guidelines of the Kemalist principles. However, in 1960 senior officers were so alarmed by government policies they perceived as deviating from Kemalism that they intervened directly in the political process by overthrowing the elected government and setting up a military regime. The military saw its mission as putting the country back on the correct path of Kemalism. Believing by October 1961 that this goal had been achieved, the officers returned to the barracks, whence they exercised oversight of civilian politicians.

The 1960 coup demonstrated the military's special status as an interest group autonomous--if it chose to be--from the government. On two subsequent occasions, in 1971 and 1980, the military again intervened to remove a government it perceived as violating Kemalist principles. The 1980 coup resulted in a longer transition period to civilian government and the imposition of more extensive restrictions on political rights than had the earlier interventions. At the start of 1995, some fourteen years after the coup, senior officers in the armed services still expected the civilian president and Council of Ministers to heed their advice on matters they considered pertinent to national security. For instance, the military defines many domestic law-and-order issues as falling within the realm of national security and thus both formulates and implements certain policies that the government is expected to approve.


College teachers and students have acted as a pressure group in Turkey since the late 1950s, when they initiated demonstrations against university teaching methods, curricula, and administrative practices that they alleged resulted in an inadequate education. The violent repression of student demonstrations in the spring of 1960 was one of the factors that prompted that year's military coup. In 1960 both teachers and students generally were held in high public esteem because the universities were viewed as the centers where the future Kemalist elite was being trained. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the universities became the loci of ideological conflicts among a multitude of political groups espousing diverse political, economic, and religious ideas. As students became progressively more radicalized and violent, armed clashes among rival student groups and between students and police increased in frequency and magnitude. By 1980 the military regarded the universities as a source of threats to Kemalist principles.

One of the aims of the military government that assumed power in 1980 was to regain state control over the universities. The regime created a Council of Higher Education, which was intended to provide a less autonomous, more uniform system of central administration. The regime purged ideologically suspect professors from the faculties of all universities and issued a law prohibiting teachers from joining political parties. Student associations lost their autonomy, and students charged with participating in illegal organizations became subject to expulsion. A cautious revival of campus political activity began in the 1990s, mainly around foreign policy issues. However, as of early 1995 the government's possession of the means and will to punish campus activists appeared to be intimidating most faculty and students.


The legalization of unions under the Trade Union Law of 1947 paved the way for the slow but steady growth of a labor movement that evolved parallel to multiparty politics. The principal goal of unions as defined in the 1947 law was to seek the betterment of members' social and economic status. Unions were denied the right to strike or to engage in political activity, either on their own or as vehicles of political parties. In spite of these limitations, labor unions gradually acquired political influence. The Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türkiye Isçi Sendikalari Konfederasyonu--Türk-Is) was founded in 1952 at government instigation to serve as an independent umbrella group. Under the tutelage of Türk-Is, labor evolved into a well-organized interest group; the organization also functioned as an agency through which the government could restrain workers' wage demands (see Human Resources and Trade Unions, ch. 3). The labor movement expanded in the liberalized political climate of the 1960s, especially after a union law enacted in 1963 legalized strikes, lockouts, and collective bargaining. However, unions were forbidden to give "material aid" to political parties. Political parties also were barred from giving money to unions or forming separate labor organizations.

The labor movement did not escape the politicization and polarization that characterized the 1960s and 1970s. Workers' dissatisfaction with Türk-Is as the representative of their interests led to the founding in 1967 of the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers' Trade Unions of Turkey (Türkiye Devrimçi Isçi Sendikalari Konfederasyonu--DISK). DISK leaders were militants who had been expelled from Türk-Is after supporting a glass factory strike opposed by the Türk-Is bureaucracy. Both Türk-Is and the government tried to suppress DISK, whose independence was perceived as a threat. However, a spontaneous, two-day, pro-DISK demonstration by thousands of laborers in Istanbul--the first mass political action by Turkish workers--forced the government in June 1970 to back away from a bill to abolish DISK. For the next ten years, DISK remained an independent organization promoting the rights of workers and supporting their job actions, including one major general strike in 1977 that led to the temporary abolition of the military-run State Security Courts. By 1980 about 500,000 workers belonged to unions affiliated with DISK.

Following the 1980 coup, the military regime banned independent union activity, suspended DISK, and arrested hundreds of its activists, including all its top officials. The government prosecuted DISK leaders, as well as more than 1,000 other trade unionists arrested in 1980, in a series of trials that did not end until December 1986. The secretary general of DISK and more than 250 other defendants received jail sentences of up to ten years. Meanwhile, the more complaisant Türk-Is, which had not been outlawed after the coup, worked with the military government and its successors to depoliticize workers. As the government-approved labor union confederation, Türk-Is benefited from new laws pertaining to unions. For example, the 1982 constitution permits unions but prohibits them from engaging in political activity, thus effectively denying them the right to petition political representatives. As in the days prior to 1967, unions must depend upon Türk-Is to mediate between them and the government. A law issued in May 1983 restricts the establishment of new trade unions and places constraints on the right to strike by banning politically motivated strikes, general strikes, solidarity strikes, and any strike considered a threat to society or national well-being.

The government's restrictions on union activity tended to demoralize workers, who generally remained passive for more than five years after the 1980 coup. However, beginning in 1986 unions experienced a resurgence. In February several thousand workers angered by pension cutbacks held a rally--labor's first such demonstration since the 1980 coup--to protest high living costs, low wages, high unemployment, and restrictions on union organizing and collective bargaining. A subsequent rally in June drew an estimated 50,000 demonstrators. Since 1986 workers have conducted numerous rallies, small strikes, work slowdowns, and other manifestations of dissatisfaction. By the early 1990s, an average of 120,000 workers per year were involved in strike activity. Türk-Is has mediated these incidents by bailing detained workers out of prison, negotiating compromise wage increase packages, and encouraging cooperative labor-management relations.


The Turkish Trade Association (Türkiye Odalar Birligi--TOB) has represented the interests of merchants, industrialists, and commodity brokers since 1952. In the 1960s and 1970s, new associations representing the interests of private industry challenged TOB's position as the authoritative representative of business in Turkey. Subsequently the organization came to be identified primarily with small and medium-sized firms. The Union of Chambers of Industry was founded in 1967 as a coalition within TOB by industrialists seeking to reorganize the confederation. The Union of Chambers of Industry was unable to acquire independent status but achieved improved coordination of industrialists' demands. By setting up study groups, the union was able to pool research on development projects. In addition, the union organized regional Chambers of Industry within TOB.

Business interests also were served by employers' associations that dealt primarily with labor-management relations and were united under the aegis of the Turkish Confederation of Employers' Unions (Türkiye Isveren Sendikalari Konfederasyonu--TISK). This confederation was established in 1961, largely in response to the development of trade unions, and was considered the most militant of employers' associations. By the end of 1980, TISK claimed 106 affiliated groups with a total membership of 9,183 employers. Although membership in TISK was open to employers in both the private and public sectors, it was primarily an organization of private-sector employers. When the military regime took power in 1980, labor union activities were suspended, but TISK was allowed to continue functioning. Employers supported the subsequent restrictive labor legislation, which appeared to be in accord with TISK proposals.

Another representative of business interests, the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (Türk Sanayiçileri ve Is Adamlari Dernegi--TÜSIAD), was founded by the leaders of some of Turkey's largest business and industrial enterprises soon after the March 1971 military coup. Its aim was to improve the image of business and to stress its concern with social issues. At the same time, TÜSIAD favored granting greater control of investment capital to the large industrialists at the expense of the smaller merchant and banking interests usually supported by TOB. TÜSIAD's leaders also were concerned with the widening economic inequalities between regions and social classes and opposed TISK's extreme antilabor policies, which they perceived as jeopardizing Turkey's chances of entering the European Union.

Religious Interests

Turkey officially has been a secular state since 1924. Atatürk viewed attachment to religion as an impediment to modernization and imposed rigorous restrictions on the practice of Islam (see Secularist Reforms, ch. 2). Until the late 1940s, the separation of mosque and state was rigidly enforced by the authoritarian, one-party government. However, secularism remained an elite ideology, whereas Islam, the nominal religion of 98 percent of the population, continued to be a strong influence on most of the people, especially in rural areas and lower-class urban neighborhoods. The advent of competitive politics in 1950 enabled religion to reacquire a respected public status. Initially the Democrat Party, then most other parties, found it politically expedient to appeal to religious sentiments in election campaigns. As the government gradually became more tolerant of religious expression, both public observance of religious festivals and mosque construction increased. In addition, there was a resurgence of voluntary religious associations, including the tarikatlar ( sing., tarikat --see Glossary). Prior to 1970, however, religion was not a political issue.

The formation of the MSP in 1972 as Turkey's first republican party to espouse openly Islamic principles inaugurated the politicization of the religious issue (see Retreat from Secularism, ch. 2). The MSP attracted a following by providing an Islamic defense of traditional values that were eroding as a consequence of the economic and social changes the country had begun to experience in the late 1960s. In effect, religion became a vehicle for expressing popular discontent. The inability of the major political parties to agree on policies to counteract this discontent tended to enhance the influence of minor parties such as the MSP. Indeed, in 1974 the main exponent of Kemalist secularism, the CHP, invited the MSP, by then the third largest party in parliament, to join it in a coalition government. Its participation in the government provided the MSP, and the Islamic movement more broadly, with an aura of political legitimacy. Subsequently, the MSP sponsored an Islamist youth movement that during the late 1970s engaged other militant youth groups--both socialists on the left and secular nationalists on the right--in armed street battles. In the mosques, numerous voluntary associations were formed to undertake religious studies, devotional prayers, charitable projects, social services, and the publication of journals. Even the minority Shia (see Glossary) Muslims organized their own separate groups (see The Alevi, ch. 2).

The 1980 coup only temporarily interrupted the trend toward increased religious observance. Initially, the military regime arrested Erbakan and other MSP leaders and put them on trial for politically exploiting religion in violation of Turkish law. However, the senior officers, although committed to secularism, wanted to use religion as a counter to socialist and Marxist ideologies and thus refrained from interfering with the tarikatlar and other voluntary religious associations. Furthermore, the generals approved an article in the 1982 constitution mandating compulsory religious instruction in all schools. When political parties were allowed to form in 1983, Özal's Motherland Party welcomed a large group of former MSP members, who probably were attracted to the party because Özal and some of his relatives had belonged to the MSP in the 1970s. One of Özal's brothers, Korkut Özal, held an important position in the Naksibendi tarikat , the oldest and largest organized religious order in Turkey.

The military regime was preoccupied with eliminating the threat from "communists," a term freely applied to anyone with socialist ideas. Thousands of persons lost jobs in state offices, schools, and enterprises because they were perceived as "leftists," and leftist organizations virtually disappeared. Religiously motivated persons assumed many of the vacated positions, especially in education, and Islamic groups filled the political vacuum created by the state's successful assault on the left. At the same time, the policies of neither the military regime nor its civilian successors effectively addressed the economic and social problems that continued to fuel popular discontent.

Without competition from the left, the religious orders and the religiously oriented Welfare Party enjoyed almost a monopoly on the mobilization of discontent. One tarikat , the boldly political Fethullahçi, actually tried to recruit cadets in the military academies. By 1986 the increasingly vociferous and militant activities of religious groups had forced on the defensive the concept of secularism itself--a bedrock of Kemalist principles for sixty years.

In 1987 the military had become persuaded that what it called "Islamic fundamentalism" was a potentially serious threat to its vision of Kemalism. In January 1987, President Evren publicly denounced Islamic fundamentalism as being as dangerous as communism. Initially, the secular political elite, with the exception of the SHP, was not persuaded by his arguments. Özal, then prime minister, seemed to support the Islamic wing of his party, which was pushing for the repeal of the remaining laws restricting religious practices. The True Path Party characterized the trend toward religious observance as a healthy development and stressed freedom of practice. However, as clandestine religious groups began to carry out attacks on noted secularists in the late 1980s, True Path Party leaders became concerned, and then alarmed, by the influence of Islamism (sometimes seen as fundamentalism).

The Welfare Party disassociated itself from violent attacks by both organized and unorganized religious fanatics, but such attacks increased in both frequency and severity in the 1990s. The most sensational attack occurred in July 1993, when a mob leaving Friday congregational prayers in the central Anatolian city of Sivas firebombed a hotel where Turkey's internationally renowned author, self-proclaimed atheist Aziz Nesin, and dozens of other writers were staying while attending a cultural festival. Although Nesin escaped harm, thirty-seven persons were killed and 100 injured in that incident. Several weeks before the attack, Nesin's newspaper, Aydinlik , had published translated excerpts of British author Salman Rushdie's controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses , which many Muslim religious leaders had condemned as blasphemous. Following publication of the excerpts, the newspaper's offices in Istanbul and other cities were attacked by groups of Islamic militants.

Turkey's religious revival has foreign policy implications because the tarikatlar tend to link with religious groups in other Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, has been an important source of the extensive financial support that has enabled the tarikatlar to proselytize and to operate charitable programs that enhance their political influence. Turkish political leaders also fear the influence of neighboring Iran, where an Islamic government replaced the secular regime in 1979, and since 1987 have tended to blame incidents of religious violence on Iranian agents. However, Turkey's religious activists are Sunni (see Glossary) Muslims who tend to display suspicion and prejudice toward Shia Muslims--who make up more than 90 percent of the Iranian population--and there has been scant evidence to support the existence of significant ties between the Turkish Sunni and Iran.


At least 15 percent of Turkey's population consists of ethnic and religious minorities. The Kurds are the minority group with the greatest impact on national politics. Since the 1930s, Kurds have resisted government efforts to assimilate them forcibly, including an official ban on speaking or writing Kurdish. Since 1984 Kurdish resistance to Turkification has encompassed both a peaceful political struggle to obtain basic civil rights for Kurds within Turkey and a violent armed struggle to obtain a separate Kurdish state. The leaders of the nonviolent struggle have worked within the political system for the recognition of Kurdish cultural rights, including the right to speak Kurdish in public and to read, write, and publish in Kurdish. Prior to 1991, these Kurds operated within the national political parties, in particular the SHP, the party most sympathetic to their goal of full equality for all citizens of Turkey. President Özal's 1991 call for a more liberal policy toward Kurds and for the repeal of the ban on speaking Kurdish raised the hopes of Kurdish politicians. Following the parliamentary elections of October 1991, several Kurdish deputies, including Hatip Dicle, Feridun Yazar, and Leyla Zayna, formed the HEP, a party with the explicit goal of campaigning within the National Assembly for laws guaranteeing equal rights for the Kurds.

Turkey's other leaders were not as willing as Özal to recognize Kurdish distinctiveness, and only two months after his death in April 1993, the Constitutional Court issued its decision declaring the HEP illegal. In anticipation of this outcome, the Kurdish deputies had resigned from the HEP only days before and formed a new organization, the Democracy Party (Demokrasi Partisi--DEP). The DEP's objective was similar to that of its predecessor: to promote civil rights for all citizens of Turkey. When the DEP was banned in June 1994, Kurdish deputies formed the new People's Democracy Party (Halkin Demokrasi Partisi--HADEP).

The PKK initiated armed struggle against the state in 1984 with attacks on gendarmerie posts in the southeast. The PKK's leader, Abdullah Öcalan, had formed the group in the late 1970s while a student in Ankara. Prior to the 1980 coup, Öcalan fled to Lebanon, via Syria, where he continued to maintain his headquarters in 1994. Until October 1992, Öcalan's brother, Osman, had supervised PKK training camps in the mountains separating northern Iraq from Turkey's Hakkâri and Mardin provinces. It was from these camps that PKK guerrillas launched their raids into Turkey. The main characteristic of PKK attacks was the use of indiscriminate violence, and PKK guerrillas did not hesitate to kill Kurds whom they considered collaborators. Targeted in particular were the government's paid militia, known as village guards, and schoolteachers accused of promoting forced assimilation. The extreme violence of the PKK's methods enabled the government to portray the PKK as a terrorist organization and to justify its own policies, which included the destruction of about 850 border villages and the forced removal of their populations to western Turkey.

In March 1993, the PKK dropped its declared objective of creating an independent state of Kurdistan in the southeastern provinces that had Kurdish majorities. Its new goal was to resolve the Kurdish problem within a democratic and federal system. The loss of PKK guerrilla camps in northern Iraq in October 1992, following defeat in a major confrontation with Iraqi Kurdish forces supported by Turkish military intervention, probably influenced this tactical change. At the same time, Öcalan announced a unilateral, albeit temporary, cease-fire in the PKK's war with Turkish security forces. The latter decision may also have reflected the influence of Kurdish civilian leaders, who had been urging an end to the violence in order to test Özal's commitment to equal rights. Whether there were realistic prospects in the spring of 1993 for a political solution to the conflict in southeast Turkey may never be known. Özal suffered a fatal heart attack in April, and his successor, Demirel, did not appear inclined to challenge the military, whose position continued to be that elimination of the PKK was the appropriate way to pacify the region. Fighting between security forces and PKK guerrillas, estimated to number as many as 15,000, resumed by June 1993.

In early 1995, Turkey's other minorities--Arabs, Armenians, other Caucasian peoples, Circassians, Georgians, Greeks, and Jews--tended toward political quiescence. Arabs, who are concentrated in the southeast to the west of the Kurds and north of the border with Syria, had demonstrated over language and religious issues in the 1980s. Because most of Turkey's Arabs belong to Islam's Alawi branch, whose adherents also include the leading politicians of Syria, Ankara's often tense relations with Syria tend to be further complicated.

The Armenian issue also adds tension to foreign affairs. The 60,000 Armenians estimated to be living in Turkey in the mid-1990s had refrained from attracting any political attention to their community. However, along with Armenians residing in Lebanon, France, Iran, and the United States, the Republic of Armenia, which borders Turkey's easternmost province of Kars, has embarrassed Turkey with highly publicized annual commemorations of the Armenian genocide of 1915-16--which the Turkish government denies ever occurred (see World War I, ch. 1). The Turkish government also condemns as harmful to overall relations the periodic efforts by the United States Congress and the parliaments of European states to pass resolutions condemning the mass killings. Various clandestine Armenian groups--of which the most prominent is the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA)--have claimed responsibility for assassinations of Turkish diplomatic personnel stationed in the Middle East and Europe. Such assassinations have continued to occur in the 1990s. Unidentified Turkish government officials frequently have leaked reports to the news media accusing Armenia, Lebanon, and Syria of allowing Armenian terrorists to receive training and support within their borders.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress