Why Did Political System Change in Turkey?

The regime has changed in Turkey. The country moved to a Turkish-style presidential system.

After three constitutional monarchies and three Republican experiences over the span of 200 years, the parliamentary regime has ended and a totalitarian “Islamic National Socialist” regime has been established. Representatives of three irreconcilably different regimes, whose co-existence is normally impossible, cobbled together around a single man, an the ultimate leader in a bid to maintain their being embodied in his personality. This gathering, meanwhile, does not mean a reconciliation between these opposite strands. It is the beginning of a new clash. This current anomaly resembles the lack of a system given the painful experience and bitter memories of the constitutional monarchy in the late Ottoman Empire and the Republican era. The preference of this ambiguity, the systemic chaos and tumult derive from the need to offer a vast space for the ultimate leader for endless maneuverings.

Throughout the history, civil strife, political tribulations and international crises had an impact on regime changes in Turkey. The most fundamental elements of these regime changes were restraining the central power and distribution of powers among different bodies and institutions. For the first time, the course of progress over the two centuries in this country has been reversed in 2017 and 2018; the separation of powers has been removed and all the authority and power are amassed at the hands of one man.

The limitation of the Sultan’s powers begins with “Sened-i Ittifak” (Charter of Alliance) in 1808. Even it was regarded to be prematurely born, its historical implications have been greater than the charter itself. It is of vital importance for the reason that it was the product of the idea to restrict authorities of the Sultan first time. But soon after this attempt, Mahmud II’s tyranny followed. The Sultan eventually took his revenge Ayans (Nobles) who demanded the share of his power.

To consolidate and solidify the centralization of power at his hands, Mahmud II carried out a crackdown on Janissaries, Bektasi Order, Sufi orders and Kurds. When we look at the formation of these fault lines, we can say that the foundations of modern Turkey might have been laid out during Mahmud II. When Mahmud II died in 1839 after a 31-year rule, he left behind a fracturing state on the verge of dissolution, Egypt question, the dispute over straits and a number of problems at international level. His dictatorship did good neither to him nor to the state.

During the reign of Sultan Abdulmajid, who inherited a body of problems from Sultan Mahmud II era, The Edict of Tanzimat was announced. With this edict, the Ottoman State has taken a partial constitutional form. Although there was not a full-fledged constitution yet, the edit offered a certain set of measures to push the Sultan to act within certain bounds and rules that limit his office’s powers. The edict introduced notions of equal citizenship, fair trial and taxation, removal of the property confiscation and strong measures to protect property rights. The Tanzimat Edict was issued to reconstruct a broken system and offered a partial relief. There was some progress in basic rights and liberties. Though small in scale and scope, people and intellectuals found relief in this era, which later culminated in the announcement of constitutional monarchy that brought a legislative assembly alongside the office of Sultan in 1876.

The Ottoman Empire, which experienced a semi-constitutional system with Tanzimat, now embraced a full-fledged constitutional structure with the Mesrutiyet (Constitutional Era) in 1876. Two chambers of Parliament, “Meclis-i Mebusan” and “Meclis-i Ayan” were established. For the first time, nobles of the countryside and representatives of the middle class came to Istanbul and participated in the decision-making mechanism after discussing national and political matters at the legislative body.

The seeds of a liberal opposition were sown in this Parliament which lasted less than two years. Sultan Abdulhamit II, who was not fond of constitutional opposition, limitation of his powers and distribution of powers among different bodies, suspended both chambers of Parliament citing the ongoing war with Russia. He destroyed the Young Ottomans who pioneered the establishment of the constitutional assembly and enacting new constitution, Kanun-i Esasi. With this, a new era of repression and tyranny took hold.

Sultan Abdulhamit II ruled the empire in a transactional and impulsive way for 33 years. He claimed he confronted imperialist powers with pursuing the policy of Pan-Islamism, a transnational ideology that aimed to unite Muslim World. He sent intellectuals into exile. He suppressed every critical voice with impunity. He established a great network for the propaganda of his regime. He expanded his reach from islands in Pacific to indigenous tribes living in most isolated and remote corners of Africa through this propaganda apparatus that ensured his presence being heard. He established close ties with tribesmen, sheiks, leaders of sufi orders and power holders on local areas. He hosted them in his palace. He magnanimously bestowed largesses upon them from the state treasury. He built Yildiz Palace with loans with high interest rates. While people were unable to find proper food and bread outside, he spent his time in Palace with pleasures, watched opera and indulged in artistic activity.

The 33-year passed in the blink of an eye. He supposed to solidify his authority. According to his propaganda machine, the state was more powerful and resurgent. But at the end of his reign, Abdulhamit II went down in history as a sultan who lost more than 1,5 million square miles of imperial territories. The economy was on the brink of total bankruptcy. The European-controlled Ottoman Public Debt Administration (Duyun-u Umumiye) took the charge of the economy and treasury. Like every dictator, he left a state in disarray and ruins.

The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) toppled Sultan Abdulhamit II and declared second Mesrutiyet. But at the end, they attempted to rule the people and bureaucracy who were accustomed to istibdat (absolute autocracy) regime with more oppression and pure tyranny to maintain public order and functional governing. When the new regime stepped up the oppression, it only accelerated the pace of the empire’s downfall and dismemberment. The CUP rulers took wrong decisions. They plunged the empire into wars of choices which were not necessary after all. And within a couple of years, they caused the demise of a huge empire.

If we look for an answer to the question of who or what brought the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, this is my response: Authoritarian regimes during three eras, Sultan Mahmud II, Sultan Abdulhamit II and the CUP rule.

Despite all the odds and challenges after the First World War, a people was fighting for its survival and independence. A new Parliament was established in Ankara. We can call this era as third Mesrutiyet. Parliament, which was remarkably democratic, won the war and found new Turkey. In 1924, Turkey made its first foray into the Republican era. The old CUP mindset resurfaced and established a new istibdat (autocracy-dictatorship) regime. The government declared war on diversity and people who formed the components of the state. In this way, the golden opportunity for progress and freedom was again squandered. Crises followed crises. The country came to the verge of another possible invasion during the Second World War. In the aftermath of the war, the country sought security guarantees and help from the West. In exchange for help, Turkey moved to a multi-party system, and Parliament, which was a rubber-stamp institution during the first decades of the Republic, again became functional and working. We can designate the 1950 elections and government change as the harbinger of second Republic.

Tanzimat Edict in 1839, Reform Edict of 1856, Mesrutiyet in 1876 and transition to the multiparty system after the Second World War were all established in a bid to secure the West’s help to overcome the internal and external challenges that threaten the territorial integrity of the state. Majority of the problems and challenges emanated from the excesses of autocratic administrations. In most cases, the Ottomans and Republican rulers sought refuge in democracy and enacted democratic reforms to resolve the problems. At least this is what history tells.

With the 1960 coup, the third Republican era started. The third era is defined by the military tutelage. May 27, March 12, September 12 and February 28 eras were time periods when the military tutelage renewed itself in different forms and shapes. Every military intervention unwittingly precipitated a new civilian power. The national will always found its representatives and undermined the military tutelage. Parliament itself continued to be a source of threat for the military.

After long decades of experience, the military establishment decided to resolve the issue of national will in a fundamental way. First, it purged the officers who respect democracy and civilian governance through a fake coup in a false-flag operation in 2016 summer. And then formulations were developed to trivialize and isolate Parliament, the embodiment of democracy and national will. Because Parliament was a place that allowed representation of Kurds, Islamist and Alevis who were regarded as natural enemies of the state. These “public enemies” had the potential to make decisions about the state. This was a great danger and threat that need to be eliminated. With the 2017 referendum and 2018 elections, the establishment finally got rid of a strong Parliament which was regarded as a threat.

All the gains and experiences of past two centuries have been reversed within two years when Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered into new waters after its Nationalist Action Party (MHP) opened the doors of a new regime. The country again came to the point where it all started, the era of Sultan Mahmud II.

Although people elected the president in an election, the military tutelage or the state establishment achieved all of its goals behind the scenes. To call this a civilian rule means having no idea about the dynamics and workings of the establishment in this country.