In Turkey’s March 1994 local elections, the pro-Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party won 19 percent of all votes nationwide. This was almost equivalent to the roughly 20 percent each of the government party (True Path) and of the major opposition party (Motherland), and significantly higher than the 13 percent of the junior partner of the coalition government, the Social Democratic Populist Party. Refah particularly triumphed in big cities and in the southeast. Both Istanbul and Ankara now have Islamist mayors, as do most of the towns and cities in the Kurdish region. Non-Islamist circles reacted to this Refah victory with shock and disbelief, despite indications that foreshadowed it throughout the second half of the 1980s.

Refah was founded in 1983, when the first general election following the military coup of 1980 was scheduled to take place. Military rulers at that time banned Refah from contesting that vote, and the party’s first contest was in the local elections in 1984. Starting with a 4.4 percent vote in 1984, Refah steadily increased its showing in every single election since then and multiplied its support four times in ten years. Even its detractors now agree that Refah is the only political party with an efficient organization and internal discipline.

Refah’s ascendancy grows out of the crisis of mainstream politics in Turkey, a crisis manifest in an almost daily eruption of corruption scandals, in the protracted economic crisis, and not least in the ongoing military conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). At a deeper level, Refah’s rise reflects a crisis of Turkey’s ruling ideology. Kemalism represents the Turkish project of “Westernization”; it was originally an attempt to forestall direct or indirect colonization by the West through adopting Westernization. Refah challenges the basic pro-West orientation which this ideology directs and which currently represents the status quo. Refah leaders have repeatedly, and apparently persuasively, made the point that “there are not several parties in Turkey; there are only two: Refah and all the others who unite in aping the West.”

Refah’s growth came as a surprise to many because of the commonly held modernist assumptions of Kemalism, according to which Islamism represents traditionalism. Yet Refah came of age alongside Turkey’s deepened integration into the world economy, and it became particularly powerful in big cities. Unlike in the 1970s, when Islamism was based on the provincial petty bourgeoisie, [1] Refah’s constituency now includes young middle-class professionals, students and the dispossessed in the metropolitan centers. By all indications, and contrary to modernist assumptions, Islamism is ascendant rather than in decline.

Islamism originates from the failure of the nationalist promises of economic and social progress. It purports to reject nationalism and asserts the superiority of Islamic over Western values. Historically, the primary project of nationalism was to replicate Western socioeconomic models of development, while at the same time rejecting Western hegemony. [2] Kemalism accepted Western civilization as the “universal” normative structure and the basis for a project of nationalist-statist developmentalism. By the 1980s, though, Turkey’s development gap was still unclosed; its self-identity remained unresolved; and the dismantling of the protectionist welfare state had begun. The promises of statism, nationalism and developmentalism had failed.

The Islamist movement builds on the failure of this internally contradictory model. Islamism purports to reject nationalism and asserts the superiority of Islamic values over those of the West. At the global level, the “universal” civilization to which Turkey aspired was being questioned and exposed as Western particularism. The project of imitating the West was discredited and the idea of returning to “authentic culture” acquired more appeal.

Refah’s Rise

Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party, in power throughout the 1980s, presided over the dismantling of the welfare state. Motherland comprised factions representing elements of the old political establishment as well as free-market liberals and Islamists. When the Soviet bloc dissolved in 1989, some in Turkey’s political elite began to reconsider the country’s role in the international order. With its application to join the European Community still pending and unlikely to receive a favorable response, they were eager to turn the country towards the East.

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, though, forced Turkey to define its place once again on the side of the West. Subsequently, with Iraq defeated and the Soviet Union out of the picture, the Islamist movements throughout the world took up the flag of opposition to the West. These circumstances made it difficult for Turkey, still an ally of the West, to harbor Islamist elements in its government. At its national convention in the summer of 1991, the Motherland Party largely purged its Islamist component. The Islamists, mostly pushed into opposition, then mounted a campaign around the themes of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism. Refah, the unrivaled political organization of Turkey’s Islamist movement, grew rapidly on a platform that rejected the West and its domestic collaborators and imitators.

Refah’s growth was aided by the dismal performance of the Social Democratic Populist Party (SDP). Throughout the 1980s, the SDP, along with Süleyman Demirel’s right-wing True Path Party, had opposed the Motherland governments as well as the entire legacy of the 1980 military coup. When Motherland lost the general elections in October 1991, True Path formed a coalition government with the SDP as its junior partner. In the ensuing years, the SDP undersigned all of the policies of its senior partner, ranging from IMF-sponsored economic stabilization measures to the escalation of military conflict in the Kurdish provinces. The party covered for Prime Minister Tansu Çiller in the face of serious corruption charges, and impotently watched as professors and publishers were imprisoned for the books they had published.

The SDP, originally the only alternative candidate for the role of opposition to a second decade of conservative rule, was now absorbed into power. It displayed no independent presence within the coalition government, leaving the ground wide open to Refah. Today, political opposition in Turkey to such widespread social ills as poverty, unemployment and corruption is represented primarily by Refah.

As popular confidence in the nation-state has eroded, its supporting ideology, Kemalism, has come to be perceived primarily in terms of its oppressive aspects. Those political forces that wish to preserve the integrity of the nation-state now appear to favor a status quo that can only be sustained by force. Against this, Refah has convincingly billed itself as the party of the “periphery” against the “center.” Infused with the currently popular liberal theme of upholding “civil society” against “the state,” Refah has articulated alternative positions on a number of issues.

Political and Economic Views

At its fourth national convention in October 1993, Refah transformed itself from a marginal party with a small but devoted following to one with mass appeal. The three issues most representative of Refah’s political philosophy, as put forward by party chair Necmettin Erbakan, are its position on the Kurdish question, its call for the establishment of a “just economic order” and the proposal for a political system with “multiple legal orders.” A critical examination of these proposals reveals Refah’s ingenuity and source of appeal, but also demonstrates the limited credibility of its self-declared commitment to secularism and democracy.

Regarding the brutal and fruitless confrontation of Kurdish and Turkish nationalisms, Refah opposes both the PKK and the Turkish government and offers a platform of unity between Turkish, Kurdish and other ethnic groups on the basis of Islam. Refah proposes official recognition of a distinct Kurdish ethnic identity and freedom of linguistic and cultural expression. In response, mainstream Turkish media accuse Refah of pandering to the PKK, while pro-PKK circles characterize it as a secret arm of Turkish capital working to undermine the revolutionary struggle of the Kurdish people.

But to those Kurds disaffected from the Turkish state but not inclined to follow the PKK, Refah offers an alternative. This stance paid off in the recent elections. Although a significant portion of the voters in the southeastern provinces abided by the boycott called by the (pro-Kurd and now banned) Democracy Party (according to Özgür Gündem, this exceeded 50 percent in certain areas), most of those who did go to the polls voted for Refah.

Regarding the economy, Erbakan’s convention speech proclaimed that rule by imitators of the West has kept Turkey backward. “Hence,” he declared, “they are the real reactionaries.” [3] Erbakan asserted that his proposal for a “just economic order” is based on the Islamic principle of justice. Its goals include: spiritual development, protection of the environment, elimination of corruption, decentralized administration, promotion of individual enterprise and withdrawal of the state from all economic activities. According to Erbakan, the state should deal only with infrastructure and maintaining order, and hence “Refah is the real pro-private initiative party.” [4]

Harshly critical of “usurer capitalism,” the “just economic order” is replete with Marxist-sounding themes of the exploitation of labor as well as racist references to “Zionist rule on Wall Street.” Ultimately, however, the envisioned “order” sounds very much like an egalitarian petty-bourgeois paradise, a utopian society made up of individual entrepreneurs. [5] This economic order surpasses both capitalism and communism, in that it includes their positive aspects (profit, free competition) but excludes the negative ones (interest, monopoly, central planning). [6] Erbakan charges that “usurer capitalism” is an exploitative system run by imperialists and Zionists, and that their organization, the IMF, pursues neocolonialist policies through its austerity measures. Instead of trying to join the European Community, he says, Turkey should initiate an Islamic Common Market. [7]

Regarding political structure, Refah proposes a system of “multiple legal orders” and the freedom of individuals to live by that legal order which corresponds to their beliefs. Refah adopted this idea at its October 1993 convention, and afterward proposed it in Parliament as a constitutional amendment to the principle of “laicism,” or secularism. The proposal derives from the Islamist argument that in Islam the community takes priority over the state. Hence, “democracy,” the rule of majority over the minority, should be replaced with “pluralism,” whereby each community is governed by its own belief system. [8] In a given society, several different legal systems may thus coexist. The role of the state would be to guarantee the autonomy of each community, and the laws and conventions of each community would be binding for all its members.

Conspicuously absent is any sense of democracy as a participatory project, both within each community and among the communities. Seemingly promoting freedom and pluralism, but in fact demanding a binding set of rules for each distinct community, this proposal grants no room for negotiation between individuals to arrive at universal rules to run the larger collectivity. Also left open is the question of how one determines (and who determines how one determines) an individual’s “identity,” and to which legal order one should subscribe. Identities would most likely be determined non-democratically from above and, once defined, would tend to remain fixed. This would be a particularly confining prospect in Turkey, repeatedly characterized by Islamists as 99 percent Muslim. With little room for any non-Islamic identity, the system of multiple legal orders based on religion would not introduce much plurality. Barred by the Turkish constitution from explicitly demanding the rule of şeriat, Refah’s proposal appears to be a backdoor way to institute an Islamist regime. Indeed, this much is volunteered by Erbakan himself in the Refah Program: “It should never be forgotten that democracy is a means, not an end. The real end is the creation of a felicitous order (saadet nizamı).” [9]

Formidable Entity

Refah’s assertion that it alone offers radical solutions is plausible. Less plausible, though, was Erbakan’s declaration at the 1993 convention that Rafah stood against neither democracy nor secularism. This was clearly an attempt to reassure the public and assuage the fears of those who see Refah as transforming itself into a mass party headed for national power. In a nice touch of irony, Erbakan suggested after the extraordinarily successful convention — the most energetic and best attended among the recent conventions of any party — that if Kemal Atatürk were still alive he would now join Refah, the only party that carries the banner of independence from the West.

Kemalists and other secularists still consider the Islamist movement in general, and Refah in particular, as politically conservative phenomena. This misses the real sources of Islamist strength in contemporary Turkey: its radicalism and its representation of the need for change. Refah has successfully tapped into popular disillusionment with the unfulfilled and impossible promise of “catching up with the West” by following in its footsteps.

Turkey’s recent elections not only demonstrated the crisis of the Kemalist ideology, but also helped transform the main Islamist political vehicle, Refah, into a formidable entity. The elections gave this movement a momentum which will be difficult to reverse in the short term, and testify to the failure of secular forces to address real issues of social inequality and compromised national independence.


[1] Edward Mortimer, Faith and Power: The Politics of Islam (London: Faber and Faber, 1982), pp. 153-154.
[2] Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? (London: Zed Press, 1986).
[3] Necmettin Erbakan, RP 4: Büyük Kongre Açıs Konuşması (Ankara, 1993), p. A8.
[4] Ibid., p. 69.
[5] Necmettin Erbakan, Adil Ekonomik Düzen (Ankara, 1991).
[6] Ibid., pp. 17-18.
[7] Ibid., pp. 91-93.
[8] See Ali Bulaç, Islam ve Demokrasi (Istanbul: Beyan Yayinlarl, 1993).
[9] Necmettin Erbakan, rkiye’nin Meseleleri ve Üzümleri (Ankara, 1991), p. A6. “Saadet nizamı” is an implicit reference to an utopian order which would replicate the rule of the Prophet in Medina, known as “saadet asrı,” or the age of felicity.

How to cite this article:

Haldun Gulalp "Islamist Party Poised for National Power in Turkey," Middle East Report 194-195 (July/August 1995).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This