Totalitarian democracy and the chamber of notables

Democracy is the manifestation of rule by the people. Democracy, which developed among the ancient Greeks, was an effort by the people to resist tyranny in order to rule themselves. However, this effort, as Aristotle said, only resulted in demagoguery. The fact that, as we have witnessed the advance of other democracies, Turkish democracy has remained at the ancient Greek level of demagoguery is a sad state of affairs.

In Turkey, democracy has never passed the point of the totalitarian rule, or what Jacobin called “oppressing the people, despite the people, for the people.” The history of Turkish democracy is one of constant struggle between the state and the people, where basic rights and freedoms were constantly repressed, and power has been concentrated in one totalitarian or a small group.

The first attempt at democracy in Turkey is generally agreed to have been the Charter of Alliance signed by Mahmut II in 1808. This document was similar to the Magna Carta, signed in England in 1215. Sultan Mahmut, who lost a small fraction of his power with the Charter of Alliance, soon used violence to reclaim it. If we said that hardly any time passed in the 600 years between the two documents we wouldn’t be exaggerating. The climb toward democracy saw such events as the Charter of Alliance, the Tanzimat Reforms, and the Imperial Reform Edict.

These long and gruelling attempts bore fruit with the constitutional monarchy of 1876. The “parliament” that Islamic intellectuals like Namik Kemal had dreamt of was finally a reality. For the first time in Turkish history, elections would be conducted and the will of the people would reflect in their leadership. Taking the English House of Commons and House of Lords as an example, the General Parliament opened in 1877, consisting of the Chamber of Notables and the Chamber of Deputies. The 40 member Chamber of Notables was selected by the Sultan, while the 130 member Chamber of Deputies was elected by the people.

The Chamber of Notables’ committees were made up of statesmen from the government, the military, the diplomatic corps, and religious officials who believed that it would be a successful undertaking. They looked upon state insurance with an evil eye and their perspectives represented the classic reflexes of the state. Sultan Abdulhamit II must have trusted the Chamber of Notables because despite his abolishment of the Chamber of Deputies, he allowed the Chamber of Notables to continue.

The Chamber of Notables and the Chamber of Deputies are a clear representation of Turkey’s struggle for democracy. The state authorities wanted something that looked like the Chamber of Deputies while those who believed in democracy wanted a parliament elected by the people. The power to dissolve parliament was like a safety valve against the will of the people. Whenever the state felt like it was losing control of the parliament, it could call for its dissolution. They’d call for elections in order to bring about a Parliament with more of the qualities of the Chamber of Notables. They didn’t hesitate to falsify elections in order to ensure the desired results.

If a country’s constitution gives one person or institution the power to dissolve the national assembly or close a political party, then democracy in that country is totalitarian and should be regarded with suspicion. It means that the will of the people is always bent to the will of some other person or group. That’s how it was. The first Ottoman Parliament didn’t survive a year. Relying on the power given him in the Ottoman Basic Law, the Sultan dissolved parliament in 1878. When the parliament was established again during the declaration of the second constitutional monarchy in 1908, it was dominated by the Party of Union and Progress. When, toward 1911, the opposition to the Party of Union and Progress started to coalesce, the Unionists grew worried, and parliament was dissolved with elections called before the opposition could fully organize.

In the 1912 elections, known as the ‘election of clubs and sticks’, the Party of Union and Progress used the full extent of their power to win. The opposition won only four seats, but General Muhtar Paşa used his right to interpret the constitution in order to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies. However, it didn’t do them any good.  If we add to all of this the way that the government changed hands with the Sublime Porte in 1913, we can see just how painful and totalitarian democracy was in the Ottoman State.

One of the most important elements of the evolution from the Ottoman State to the Turkish Republic was the configuration of totalitarian democracy. Even with the success of the Nationalist Movement, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk couldn’t exercise the control he wanted over the first parliament. Of course, in order to found an assembly that was absolutely obedient to him, he tried to get his own men into the committees that were being formed in the first Turkish parliament. Yet there were still what Feroz Ahmad called ‘backwards and conservative’ elements in the parliament and these had to be eliminated. Affected by the parliament’s rejection of the Lausanne Treaty, Ataturk dissolved it. Thus, the tradition of totalitarian democracy was carried on without interruption into the new state.

New elections were carried out and the second national assembly, which looked more like the Chamber of Notables, opened in 1923. But leaders such as Kazim Karabekir, Ali Fuad Cebesoy, Rauf Orbay and Adnan Adivar who were opposed to Ataturk founded the Progressive Republican Party and left the Republican People’s Party he had founded. Discomfited by the 29 seats this party won, the totalitarian authorities used the Sheikh Said Rebellion as an excuse to close the party and put its representatives in prison. As Mete Tuncay said, “There is no doubt that the single-party rule of the CHP between 1923-45 was a dictatorship.”

Ataturk’s interventions didn’t end with the closing of the Progressive Republican Party. During the same period, he forced Ali Fethi Okyar to resign and appointed Ismet Inonu as prime minister. He remained prime minister until 1938. The way that Inonu became prime minister resembles the way in which Ahmet Davutoglu was removed in 2016 and replaced with Binali Yildirim. Both of these events represented significant ruptures in Turkish democracy.

In the Grand National Assembly, the CHP ruled as the state wished. When their hold on power was at risk of slipping, they called elections and didn’t hesitate to resort to rigging. The system of vote counting called the “Open Vote-Secret Rank” that they used in the 1946 general elections is a good example. But with international intervention, they were obligated to democratize and when they moved to a multi-party system the Democrat party won a majority in parliament.

After a short semblance of democracy, Adnan Menderes started the process of authoritarianization. He tried to shore up his rule and eliminate all opposition. He won the 1954 elections but didn’t hesitate to take revenge on the three provinces where he lost. He divided Malatya and Konya into two districts and made Kırşehir a sub-province. Kırşehir was punished for supporting Osman Bölükbaşı. In the end, Bölükbaşı’s party, the Nation Party was closed and he was put in prison. During the 1957 elections Menderes, who understood the power of radio, turned the national radio station into a propaganda tool and took away the opposition’s rights to broadcast. On top of that, he announced his victory at 14:30, while voting was still ongoing, completing a historic manipulation. The same early broadcasting of results took place in the last elections with Anadolu Agency.

Since the beginning of the military guardianship in 1960 in Turkey and continuing under the civil guardianship regime in 2013, election practices are a shadow of their former selves. But this is a subject for whole other article.