The country is now in the midst of a lengthy political cycle, with the local elections in March 2014 being followed in August by the country’s first-ever, direct presidential elections. 2015 will also see the country’s 18th general election, currently scheduled for June 7. Thus, these are very much political and busy times for Turkey, a characteristic given some edge by the turbulence of 2013, when the country saw a sharpening of disagreement over the direction of Turkey’s development and the role of its leaders and institutions.
Nonetheless, the resounding victory of the sitting government in the March 2014 local elections – which were accepted by all sides as a ballot on the national government, too – demonstrated the widespread and continuous support for the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This 60-year old leader from the poorer, Kasımpaşa neighbourhood of Istanbul has come to dominate and symbolise modern Turkey more than any other politician of the recent Republican era. He now leads a nation that has grown greatly in confidence, wealth and international stature since his party took power in 2002.
Plans for the Future
Now, the government is looking forward to 2023, the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic, as a target year for the achievement of a string of developmental goals. If these are reached, Turkey will be among the world’s top 10 countries in terms of the size of its economy, with its per capita income around twice what it was in 2013 at $10,971 and the country’s GDP planned to grow from $822.13bn in 2013 to $2trn.
In doing so, it will also have likely become a regional political leader, powerfully influential in capitals that range from the western Chinese frontier to the Aegean Sea, and from Europe to the Congo. Whether such ambition will be achieved remains to be seen, but for sure, there is a great spirit of dynamism in Turkey today – and national pride in the country’s achievements, both contemporary and historical.
Land of Empires
Today’s Anatolian Turks trace their ancestry back to a group of tribes in eastern central Asia that began westwards migration from the 6th century onwards. Bringing with them their Turkic language – the modern versions of which are still spoken over a geography ranging from Western China to Azerbaijan – and converting to Islam, the Seljuk Turks were the first to establish a permanent presence in Anatolia, starting from the 11th century. There, they clashed with the Byzantine Empire, beginning a conflict that would last until 1453, when the Seljuk’s successors, the Ottomans, captured Constantinople, now Istanbul.
By then, the Ottoman Empire had expanded into the Balkans as well. It added territories over the following decades until reaching a golden age under Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century. By that time, most of the Middle East was under Ottoman rule, along with North Africa, the Caucasus, the Crimea and South-eastern Europe as far north as the gates of Vienna. A multi-ethnic empire, Ottoman Turkish, Greek, Arab, Kurdish, Caucasian and Balkan subjects dominated trade, culture, politics and warfare in the Mediterranean, Black and Red Seas for decades, while also holding the western end of that great medieval bundle of overland trade routes, the Silk Road.
The Ottoman Empire then began a protracted decline, however, in the centuries that followed, as the power of an industrialising Europe and resurgent Russia gradually pushed the Ottomans out of the Caucasus, the Crimea and the Balkans, then, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, out of North Africa and the Middle East. The final denouement came with the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire joined the losing side and was subsequently partitioned and shared between the victorious Allies.
Confined to Anatolia and a sliver of Thracian land, a period of great turmoil then ensued out of which modern Turkey was born. In this, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk emerged as the leader of the resurgent Turkish nationalists. Fighting off an invading Greek army in western Anatolia and French occupation along the country’s south-east coast, Atatürk also manoeuvred the British out of their occupation of Istanbul and established the Turkish Republic in 1923, after the last sultan had gone into exile. An unprecedented modernisation drive then began. The Latin alphabet was adopted, in place of the Arabic, modes of dress were changed, a command economy was instituted, and a national, rather than religious, interpretation of history and the modern state was enforced.
A New Era
Atatürk died in 1938, with İsmet İnönü taking over as president in what was largely an authoritarian state, under a single political party – the Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Atatürk and the ancestor of the modern opposition grouping. İnönü kept Turkey neutral during the Second World War, while also allowing the first free elections in 1950. However, the elections led to his ouster by the Democratic Party of Ceylal Bayar and Adnan Menderes, who then became prime minister.
Menderes was, however, overthrown in a military coup in 1960 and subsequently executed. The military restored civilian power soon after though, with a succession of coalition governments following, led once again by İnönü for a time, then Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit, who became major political leaders of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Two more military coups followed, in 1971 and 1980, with the 1970s also seeing the Turkish military’s intervention in Cyprus in 1974, which established the current de facto division of the island. The 1980s premiership of Turgut Özal was also significant, as his government launched a major liberalisation programme for the economy.
The post-Cold War period – Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952 and fought on the Allied/UN side in the Korean War – saw the country’s first female prime minister, Tansu Çiller, and the signing of a Customs Union with the EU. Turkey has been pursuing membership of the EU and its predecessors since the Ankara Agreement of 1963.
The 1990s were also a period of successive and short-lived coalition governments, with Çiller going into coalition with the Welfare Party in 1996. A “soft coup” was subsequently unleashed by the military in 1997 that saw this government ejected from office. The coalitions that followed were also unstable, however, with major financial crises striking in 2000 and then again in 2001.
In 2002, general elections thus saw a resounding victory for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which had grown out of the Welfare Party, but with a more politically and economically liberal agenda. Able to establish single party rule for the first time since 1960, the AK Party won subsequent general elections in 2007 and 2011. Its term of office has also seen a major shift in power away from the military – many members of which have since been prosecuted for their role in the 1997 soft coup and alleged role in other conspiracies. There has also been a pronounced shift in power away from the old, secularist, Kemalist elite that had dominated Turkish politics since before the Second World War.
Head of State
Under the current constitution, the president is the head of state, with the power to appoint the prime minister (usually the person able to command a majority in parliament), the ministers of government, (on the prime minister’s advice) the Chief of the General Staff, the members of the Constitutional Court and other top legal officials.
He or she also presides over the National Security Council, at which the leading members of the government meet with the chiefs of the security forces, and the Council of Ministers. He or she also appoints rectors of universities and the members of a string of key – and sometimes controversial– bodies, such as the Higher Education Council. The president may also issue decrees, although in most cases, these must also be signed by the prime minister.
The president may also exercise a power of veto over bills presented by the parliament, returning them for further debate. If parliament continues to approve the bill, however, the president is obliged to sign the bill into law, or call a referendum. Until a constitutional amendment was passed by just such a referendum in 2007, the president was elected for a single, seven-year term by parliament, rather than by popular vote. The presidential election in August 2014 was the first time the head of state had been elected by universal suffrage. The president can also now run for a maximum of two, five-year terms.
Most political power lies currently with the prime minister, who is usually the head of the largest party in parliament and who appoints ministers and others to the cabinet. The prime minister has considerable powers of appointment within state agencies, as well as being able to dissolve parliament and call elections within the five-year term of the assembly. The prime minister’s government drafts and submits laws to the parliament while also deciding policy for, and giving direction to, state ministries, departments and agencies.
The full name of the single-chamber parliament is the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM). It is composed of 550 deputies, elected for four-year terms under a proportional representation, party-list system. Parties must also get at least 10% of the national vote in order to qualify for seats in the TBMM, a threshold which has worked strongly against minority and regional parties. Independents may stand without requirement for the 10% threshold, however, with some regional and minority parties thus unofficially fielding candidates in this category. The 2011 elections produced a victory for the AK Party, which garnered 49.83% of the vote, and 327 deputies. Runners up were the CHP, with 25.98% of the vote and 135 deputies, followed by the National Action Party, with 13.01% of the vote and 53 deputies. Some 6.57% of the vote went to “independent” candidates, many of who subsequently became Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputies. The BDP was a pro-Kurdish party, based mainly in the south-east. Some 12 other parties ran candidates, but all received less than 1.5% of the vote and failed to gain any deputies. Bills must be debated and passed by the TBMM before going to the president for final approval. In 2013-14, faced with a large number of bills, the TBMM began bundling these together in a manner that has been controversial. The current speaker of the TBMM is Cemil Çiçek of the AK Party.
Turkey is divided into 81 provinces, with these further divided into 892 districts. Each district has its own municipality, while cities and towns within a district may also have a municipal authority – the larger ones have several – while cities of more than 750,000 inhabitants also have a greater metropolitan municipality. For this reason there are around 2856 municipalities countrywide, following a reduction in numbers after some smaller units were amalgamated ahead of the 2009 local elections. Each municipality is headed by an elected mayor, who presides over an elected council. There are also village councils in rural areas, and sub-district units in urban areas, known as mahalles, headed by a muhtar, who is also subject to election.
Local government is a significant force in Turkish politics, as well as in the local economy. In 2013 around 30% of all public investment in the country was carried out by local government units, with approximately 80% of these carried out by municipalities. They are active in local health care and education provision, as well as investing in transport and communications infrastructure, environmental protection and even tourism.
The judicial system divides first into civilian and military branches, with each of these in turn dividing into administrative and ordinary. In the military branch, the Military Court of Cassation is the highest ordinary body, presiding over military courts and beneath them, disciplinary courts. On the civilian side, the Court of Cassation is the highest ordinary court, with district courts of appeals, then courts of civil law and courts of criminal law coming under this. On the administrative side, the Council of State is the highest judicial body, followed by district administrative courts, then administrative courts and lastly tax courts.
Over the whole hierarchy sits the Constitutional Court, with the Court of Jurisdictional Disputes on the same level, deciding on issues between judicial bodies. The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), established in 1982, makes decisions on appointments and promotions of judges, with HSYK’s powers expanded under 2010 constitutional reforms from seven to 22 members. Police and gendarmerie (the rural police force) are affiliated to the Ministry of the Interior, while prisons and detention centres are affiliated to the Ministry of Justice.
The 2015 period is likely to be dominated by electoral activity, as the rival parties vie for the presidency, followed by general elections to decide on the government itself. In August 2014, one of the earliest results in the first of these critical ballots was Erdoğan’s presidency. This is widely expected to lead to a sharp change in the role and powers of the position too, as he was elected by popular will, rather than decided by parliamentary vote.
As Erdoğan’s presidency continues it is likely to develop a more active, chief-executive character than the position previously did, with one challenge likely to be that of achieving greater consensus with those that voted for other parties, while also forging ahead with the kind of development the president wants. The presidency may also likely have a significant effect on the vote in the 2015 general elections. The long history of the country and the lessons of its turbulent past will likely stand Turkey in good stead though, as it moves through a packed agenda towards the republic’s first centennial.
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