In his first televised interview in late 1996, just months after taking office, an avuncular-looking Necmettin Erbakan seemed unsurprised at a question about his taste in clothing. “Mr. Prime Minister, we hear that you favor ties by the Italian designer Versace,” said commentator Mehmet Ali Birand. “What is it about Versace that you like?” His half-smile unfading, Turkey’s first-ever Islamist prime minister answered that “this particular Western designer seems to have borrowed from Islamic aesthetics and Oriental patterns.”

With Versace ties, savvy sound bites and a unique political vision, the emergence of Necmettin Erbakan and his Welfare Party (Refah) heralded a new era of political struggle in Turkey. Welfare ruled Turkey for 12 months (June 1996 to June 1997) before being outmaneuvered by an alliance of secularists led by the Turkish military. When months of tension between the secularist front and the Welfare-led coalition brought about the government’s downfall, mainstream media dubbed it Turkey’s first “post-modern coup,” since the Islamists were forced out of power without putting troops on the street. A secular jihad continued, with the Constitutional Court banning the Welfare Party and barring 71 year-old Erbakan from politics while other high courts eliminated key Islamist figures, such as Istanbul’s charismatic mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Contrary to the prevailing Turkish academic and intellectual view, I argue that the Welfare Party, a product of the Turkish parliamentary system, neither posed a threat to the Turkish state nor intended to alter the fundamental precepts of the regime in order to establish an Islamic republic. Rather, Refah’s 12-month rule illustrated a process of political negotiation between Turkey’s Islamists and the Kemalist establishment; an Islamist party accommodated a strictly secularist political system, thereby transforming its self-definition and foreign and economic policies. Being in government was a “learning experience” that forced Refah to abandon its harsh rhetoric and clarify its policies on key issues. Unfortunately, Refah’s “learning curve” received very little recognition from the Turkish secularists who, as Metin Heper notes, “see a zero-sum relationship between secularism and Islam and reject the idea of a reconciliation between the two.” [1]

Today, despite the formation of a new party comprised of former Welfare members, the Turkish political system is in the process of trying to assimilate the nation’s political Islamists, moderates and hardliners alike. Elections and new electoral reforms are discussed within the context of minimizing Islamist votes — still the highest in the polls — and maximizing secularists’ chances of remaining in power. Although the Turkish state encouraged Islamist ideology as a counterweight to a leftist tide in the 1980s, it now strives to eradicate the country’s Islamist potential. This is Turkey’s last grand Kemalist project of the century.

Since the National Security Council (Turkey’s top military-led body) declared Islamic fundamentalism the country’s number one “domestic threat” in 1997 — relegating the all-time front-runner, “Kurdish separatism,” to a mere second place — a new power struggle has emerged in Ankara. Today, amid a bitter media war, dozens of lawsuits and constant parliamentary maneuvers, Turkish political life is marked by a struggle for the hearts and minds of the one fifth of the population that placed its faith in the Welfare Party.

Refah’s year-long rule forever changed Turkey’s political complexion. The December 1995 general elections revealed the fragmented nature of Turkey’s body politic: No single party exceeded one fifth of the votes under the mitigated proportional representation system. Recurring military coups in previous decades had taken a toll on Turkish politics, dividing both right and left with bitter rivalries. Many Western-oriented urbanites, alarmed by the Islamists’ electoral victory in the local elections of 1994, voted for the most likely secular contender — not always a personal favorite — in order to avoid a Welfare victory. As a result, the two main right-wing contenders, Tansu Çiller’s conservative True Path Party (DYP) and the Motherland Party (ANAP) of Mesut Yilmaz, each garnered 20 percent of the vote. With its unyielding political campaigning, growing popularity among the urban poor, increasingly populist discourse and an impressive track record in local government, Welfare won an unprecedented number of votes for an Islamist party, receiving 21.38 percent of the ballot. When numerous coalition attempts failed, US-educated economist and former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller and German-trained engineer Necmettin Erbakan formed a ruling coalition.

The complicated coalition protocol was brought into sharp relief when Çiller asked her partner to take an oath with his hand on the Qur’an. [2] Welfare’s rise to power in June 1996 sent shock waves through Turkish politics, long characterized by a strong Kemalist and secularist establishment. Within months, the country was polarized between secularists and Islamists. Secularist strongholds, particularly the mainstream media and armed forces, declared a war against the perceived threat of Islamic fundamentalism. For its part, Welfare was not always tactful in assuaging secularists’ fears.

In an interview, Istanbul’s charismatic Welfare Party mayor heightened concern by stating that “our reference is not democracy, but Islam. Democracy is not an end in itself.” Erbakan’s decision to make his first foreign visit to Iran and later Libya sparked media outrage and public alarm that the new government would alter Turkey’s “westward orientation” — even though previous Turkish leaders had also visited these countries. The coalition also received criticism for neglecting ties with the European Union, while Welfare’s efforts to liberalize Turkey’s strict laws regulating the wearing of headscarves in public created an uproar in secularist circles. “Of course the Welfare period increased the chances for a shariat state in Turkey. Their reference point continued to be the Qur&rsquoan, not democracy. Headscarves and calls to make Friday a holiday were not just democratic demands. They tried to rearrange the public sphere in accordance with religious symbols,” said columnist Ismet Berkan, whose leftist paper Radikal was at the forefront of the mainstream media’s battle with the Welfare government.

Berkan and others were watchful of any Welfare policies that might change the secular nature of the Kemalist state — policies which attempted to change the definition of “secularism” in the constitution, lift the ban on the headscarf for public employees, favor Islamist corporations in government and local contracts and foster ties with religious orders and sects. The final straw for the military (according to Ankara insiders) was the government’s decision to close state agencies at 4:30 in the afternoon during Ramadan so that employees could return home in time to break their fast at sundown. The combined opposition of the media, secular parties and the intelligentsia found a ready ally in Turkey’s staunchly secularist military. All saw in Refah’s actions a coordinated plan to alter the nature of the Kemalist state.

The opposition overlooked Welfare’s gradual transformation into a mainstream political party, best illustrated by a number of domestic and international events during its reign. The narrowly based Islamist party of the 1980s, which usually took 6-7 percent in the elections, had radically broadened its power base by the early 1990s. In the eyes of increasing numbers of Welfare Party voters, mainstream parties embodied the most decadent aspects of Turkish politics: the scarcity of charismatic leaders like the late Turgut Ozal; the lack of remedies for hyper-inflation and economic disparity; ineffective solutions for the decades-old Kurdish issue; and widespread corruption. [3] Refah capitalized on these frustrations, scoring a sweeping victory in the local elections of 1994.

There was more to Welfare’s electoral success than just “others’ failures,” however. In the early 1990s, Welfare leaders consistently strove, albeit with limited success, to tone down their shrill rhetoric. Whereas party leaders had previously vacillated between moderate rhetoric and fierce anti-secularism, [4] they adopted a more conciliatory discourse following their victory in the local elections.

Using a wide grassroots network, Welfare embarked on an aggressive recruitment campaign, boasting, in 1995, the largest number of registered party members. Religious tariqats (orders), traditionally supporters of centrist parties, mended fences with Refah. The party declared that its range of interests went beyond those of Islamist voters. To justify its center-right credentials, a number of non-Islamists were recruited in the lead-up to the 1995 elections, including the son of former Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. While women played key roles at the grassroots level, demands to appoint women candidates met internal opposition within the party’s ranks. In all respects, Refah looked more like a loose coalition of anti-secularist and moderate Islamists, nationalists and conservative Kurdish nationalists than an Islamist force ready to overtake the regime and radically change Turkey’s course.

Refah and its predecessors had, after all, been a part of Turkey’s parliamentary system for decades. Erbakan himself had taken part in coalition governments in the 1970s. Turkish Islam always had a strong connection to Turkish nationalism. Ironically, it was the military government itself that encouraged the doctrine of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis and the growth of Islamists networks in the 1980s. Welfare represented a slightly older and different tradition, one dominated by an elite grouped around a leader — its members included Oguzhan Asiltürk, Recai Kutan and Sevket Kazan. These were Erbakan’s long-time comrades in arms and most had lengthy histories of state employment. This conservative circle of elders, called the politbüro or aksaçlilar (“white hairs”), was at times in conflict with a younger, more confrontational generation of party leaders. [5] Paradoxically, Welfare’s mainstream popularity grew in the 1990s as a result of its reputation for restraint and tight control by the politbüro.

Yet Welfare’s transformation occurred not in opposition, but while in power. Perhaps the most stunning example of this transformation was the party’s acceptance — initially hesitant — of Turkish-Israeli ties. Welfare and its predecessor, the National Salvation Party, had traditionally taken a strong anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist stance. By the time Erbakan emerged as Prime Minister, however, Turkish-Israeli ties had evolved, culminating in a military cooperation agreement in February 1996. Under Welfare, Turkey and Israel consolidated a free-trade agreement, while enhancing joint interaction with military maneuvers and a flurry of reciprocal state visits. During his trip to Washington in February 1997, Refah’s foreign policy point man, Abdullah Gül, met members of the American Jewish lobby and reassured them that Welfare was not “against the state of Israel.” [6] For his part, Erbakan kept a strategic distance from Israel, far enough to save face in the Muslim world, but close enough to elicit Binyamin Netanyahu’s praise: “Contrary to all our fears and concerns, today we are very pleased with Mr. Erbakan’s government.” [7]

Also transformed was the party’s unique vision of the Turkish economy — a blend of 1970s anti-imperialist rhetoric and aspirations for industrial development. The Just Order (Adil Duzen) encapsulated a quasi-socialist discourse based on a strong welfare system, state-controlled industrialization and freedom from western market requirements such as privatization, currency exchange, quotas and the cancellation of agricultural subsidies. Meanwhile, Welfare strengthened its ties to economically robust and politically conservative small- to medium-sized industrialists who formed the pro-Welfare businessmen’s lobby MUSIAD in 1993. MUSIAD lobbied for anti-protectionist, free-market policies within the party, while insisting that members engage in interest-free transactions.

Erbakan’s self-styled Just Order was jettisoned as soon as Welfare assumed power. The party preserved Turkey’s economic bureaucracy and, despite years of anti-imperialist and anti-western slogans, nurtured strong ties to international financial organizations, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Welfare also championed privatization — more state enterprises and lands were sold off under the Welfare coalition than under any other government. Finally, at the Fifth Party Congress in October 1996, Erbakan cited privatization and economic liberalization as being among the party’s main political goals.

The most dramatic transformation during Welfare’s year-long rule was its changed self-image: from an Islamic opposition force, a mainstream conservative party with mass appeal had emerged. This metamorphosis became clear during Refah’s Fifth Party Congress. The customary green flags and slogans of Mucahit Erbakan (“Erbakan the Holy Warrior”) so prevalent during previous Refah gatherings were replaced with Turkish flags and chants extolling Basbakan Erbakan (“Prime Minister Erbakan”). No longer an opposition figure, Erbakan roared on stage that Welfare “defended all the values of the center.” The prime minister declared his party to be the political descendant of Turgut Ozal as well as the Democratic Party of the 1950s, both known for liberalizing religion and the economy alike.

The Fifth Party Congress heralded Welfare’s desire to be assimilated into the system. By now, the party had officially embraced secularism — albeit asserting that “the American version” was much closer to their worldview than were the French or Kemalist — and had dropped their confrontationist stance towards Kemalism. [8] In its final days, the Welfare government increasingly invoked democracy and human rights as key themes. This new emphasis, which endeavored to convince voters that Welfare was not a marginal party, failed to convince state prosecutor Vural Savas that Welfare did not “try to uproot parliamentary democracy in Turkey” (as cited in the prosecution’s list of charges). In the end, Welfare was banned in 1997 on the grounds that it lacked democratic parliamentary credentials and had tried to alter the secularist nature of the Turkish state.

Yet the banning of the party and its key figures did not alleviate the Kemalist establishment’s fears of “the fundamentalist threat,” nor did it halt the acute crises in Turkey’s political and electoral systems. According to recent polls, Refah’s successor, the Party of Fazilet (Virtue), still tops its right-wing rivals with a 23-24 percent lead. [9] The military and various political parties routinely carry out their own public polls, from which they make political projections. One leading pollster and political analyst claims that, in addition to the Islamist votes, urban poor and conservative religious orders still favor the Welfare-influenced Virtue Party, while both right- and left-wing parties have seen an attenuation of their traditional bases of voters. [10] Discussion of new electoral systems — such as the two-tiered Israeli system and the presidential system — occupy the public debate, while numerous bills for electoral reforms are stalled by parliamentary quibbles.

In this unusual political atmosphere, the formerly secularist Tansu Çiller campaigns for conservative Islamist and religious order votes and the right-wing Motherland Party has become a prime choice for traditional leftist urban voters. Corruption scandals and allegations of mafia ties have irreparably damaged both parties. The two mainstream leftist parties are ideologically exhausted and unable to offer any alternative vision beyond a strong secularist identity. On both ends of the ethno-political spectrum, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party and the ultra-nationalist National Action Party suffer from the same malaise of Turkish democracy: neither is likely to exceed the current ten percent election threshold, originally designed to minimize Welfare’s electoral success. Ironically, this threshold has actually worked to Welfare’s advantage.”

Exacerbating Turkey’s political volatility is an existential question about elections: Will they ever take place? Elections are due in 2000, but a consensus is growing between major political parties to hold early elections in April 1999. Many, however, doubt that the elections will be held as long as Fazilet continues to top the opinion polls. Under these conditions, another Islamist-led government could well provoke a modern, rather than post-modern, form of intervention: a military one.


[1] Metin Heper, “Islam and Democracy in Turkey: Towards a Reconciliation?” Middle East Journal 51/1 (Winter 1997), p. 44.
[2] In his June 21, 1996, column of the mainstream daily Hurriyet, editor-in-chief Ertugrul Özkök called the coalition pact an “indecent proposal” since it was built on the premise that Erbakan would get the first turn in the prime ministership in exchange for not supporting corruption charges against Çiller in the parliament.
[3] For a leftist analysis of the decade-long parliamentary crisis in Turkey, see Ertugrul Kürkçü, “The Crisis of the Turkish State,” Middle East Report 199 (April-June 1996).
[4] For an account of the dual nature of Welfare’s public speech, see Sami Zubaida, “Turkish Islam and National Identity,” Middle East Report 199 (April-June 1996), pp. 10-15.
[5] For a thorough account of the intra-party conflicts and Welfare’s growth in the 1990s, see journalists Rusen Cakir’s Ayet ve Slogan (Istanbul: Milliyet, 1992) and Ne Seriat Ne Demokrasi (Istanbul: Metis, 1994).
[6] See Yeni Yüzyil, February 28, 1997, for an account of Gül’s meeting with representatives from AIPAC, JINSA, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.
[7] From Netanyahu’s first interview with Milliyet.
[8] Erbakan once again offended Turkish secularists prior to the Congress by saying that “if alive, Ataturk would also be a Welfare member.”
[9] Polls conducted by Verso Polling agency in Ankara appeared in several Turkish papers in August 1998.
[10] The source desires anonymity.
[11] This is especially so in predominantly Kurdish southeastern Turkey. When the pro-Kurdish HADEP failed to obtain parliamentary representation because it did not meet the 10 percent national threshold, its votes (translating to 22 seats in a parliament of 550) were automatically transferred to the next largest party in the region.

How to cite this article:

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş "The Malaise of Turkish Democracy," Middle East Report 209 (Winter 1998).

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