Notes On Turkısh Polıtıcs (I): Strong State Tradıtıon

“…Turkish Army is determined to defend the unitary secular state founded by Ataturk… Protection of fundamental characteristics of the republic cannot be considered as an intervention in domestic politics.” said, Isık Kosaner, ex-Chief of the General Staff

Democracy as a regime type is the most ideal form of government in the contemporary world. Especially in the post-Cold war era, with the triumph of liberal democracy against Soviet communism, the importance of the democratic norms and principles has been once again emphasized.

Despite the fact that, the official history in Turkey states that the parliament that had been founded in 1920 in Ankara was the first parliament of Turkey it is known that Turkey’s (Ottoman Empire’s) first parliament, that is the Meclis-i Mebusan, was founded on March 31, 1877, and it had 115 members and the parliament founded in 1920 in Ankara was not a new parliament, but a successor to the former one.Despite having a long parliamentary regime experience, Turkish politics has a sui generis type of democracy. I can even claim that “Turkish democracy” can be seen as an oxymoron for most of the history. Turkish democracy has been most of the time in history characterized by having a fragile nature.

Robert Dahl  in his book titled Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy: Autonomy vs. Control offers the most generally accepted required criteria of what he terms the “procedural minimal” conditions that must be present for modern democracy (as he puts it, “polyarchy”) to exist. Dahl argues that the following criteria are required for demoracy:

“1)Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in elected officials.

2) Elected officials are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon.

3) Practically all adults have the fight to vote in the election of officials.

4) Practically all adults have the right to run for elective offices in the government . . . .

5) Citizens have a right to express themselves without the danger of severe punishment on political matters broadly defined . . . .

6) Citizens have a right to seek out alternative sources of information. Moreover, alternative sources of information exist and are protected by law.

7) Citizens also have the right to form relatively independent associations or organizations, including independent political parties and interest groups.”

Based on these criteria, it can be said that democracy in the Turkish case has never been fully realized. Democracy has generally been a contested concept about which the military elites, bureaucratic class and the politicians have disagreed so far.  It is obvious that, the secularist drive was the most characteristic element of the Kemalist reform movement. Ironically, the way these reforms were implemented impeded another important aim of the Kemalist modernization process: realizing a democratic political life.

Turkey has got an illiberal democracy. An illiberal democracy, as described by Fareed Zakaria, is a political system in which free and fair elections exist, but civil liberties are not fully protected and state power is not limited. The Turkish Republic inherited from the Ottoman Empire a strong, centralized, and highly bureaucratic state. According to Ergun Özbudun the structures of the state (the civil service, armed forces, police, and courts) have been so institutionalized that this overdevelopment of the state mechanism coupled with the predominance of a “strong-state tradition” in Turkish political culture. According to Metin Heper, Turkey has a strong state tradition in this tradition state elites and state institutions have a dominant role.  By contrast, the non-state units such as civil society organizations do not have their have typically been weak and passive actors.

Despite the EU reform process and other legal and institutional regulations, Turkey still has a long way to go for further democracy. A new and civilian constitution which is sine qua non of a strong democracy can only be drafted in a pluralistic process through which all the different segments of the society with different ideologies and worldviews reach a common reasoning. I think the most influential factor that blocks Turkish political system and harms democracy is the nature of the relationship between the state elites (power holders) and the opposing groups, political parties and voices of any kind. Silencing the opposition harms civil liberties and undermines democracy and we tragically see this story each and every day. I think, silencing the opposing voices stems from the tradition of “strong state”. Ruling elites have always seen themselves as the sole actors who can have a say in the political and administrative system.

In my next article, I will try to address Turkish politics with a special emphasis on civil-military relationship and how this relationship transformed over time and shaped democratic system.

Cited resources:

Turkish military will defend secular state, government warned  (January 26, 2021)

The state tradition in Turkey: Heper, Metin: 9780906719084: Books (January 26, 2021)

The Fragility of Turkish Democracy ( (January 30, 2021)

The Rise of Illiberal Democracy by Fareed Zakaria (  (January 26, 2021)

bilkent-research-paper (January 26, 2021)

Robert Dahl, Dilemmas of Pluralist Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Dr.Begum Burak
Dr.Begum Burak
Dr. Begüm Burak is an independent researcher. In 2015, Ms. Burak got her PhD degree. During her occupation as a teaching assistant, she got engaged in short-term academic activities in Italy, United Kingdom, Bosnia and Spain. In 2018, she became one of the founding members of For her twitter visit: @begumburak1984