Polarization and Democratization in Turkey

Turkey goes through a new cycle of polarization threatening the social equilibrium.

Despite the increasing discourse on polarization in Turkey, it is nothing new in Turkish political life. There have always been ideological or partisan dividing lines in Turkish politics that generated polarization among different groups. One of the most vicious episodes of polarization in Turkey was experienced during the 1970s, on the left-right axis of the ideological spectrum, which is still vivid in the memories of many. Today, we are witnessing yet another episode of polarization in Turkish political life, though this time vested with a different nature, breaking away from its past occurrences.

Starting with the 1990s and particularly during the 2000s, different segments of Turkish society from various ideological backgrounds have begun to find themselves different venues of civic participation outside the conventional political space. While some groups had already organized themselves and had been engaged in the country’s social and economic life, it is only during the last decade that we witness such a diversification of the actors participating in Turkey’s civil society.

The flourishing of actors would have been acknowledged a positive development regarding Turkey’s civic realm, only if the civic culture was already established in the society. However, such flourishing is accompanied by lack of tolerance and respect for others, which entails a deep fragmentation in the case of Turkish civil society. While the organizations representing different segments of the society turn in upon themselves, they increasingly find it difficult to establish a common language to work together.

In consequence, current polarization in Turkish political and social life has been more intense and experienced more extensively than the previous ones. During the last decade, the number and visibility of the NGOs have increased considerably. On the other hand, though, there has been a mushrooming of NGOs with similar agendas, their major difference being the ideological preference of their base; they are unable to gather around the same table even temporarily for a common public purpose. For instance, a Human Rights Joint Platform was established by the Human Rights Association, Amnesty International, Helsinki Citizens’ Association and The Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People, all representing different segments of Turkish society with members from different ideological backgrounds. However, The Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed People, known to have a conservative base, has withdrawn from the Platform following a dispute over homosexuals’ rights.

The deep fragmentation of Turkish civil society organizations with respect to political or ideological preferences can best be illustrated with the business associations which are represented under different umbrellas throughout the political spectrum. On the left side of the spectrum there is the Association of Republican Industrialists and Businessmen (Cumhuriyetçi Sanayici ve İş Adamları Derneği–CUSİAD) established by the universalistic Alevis, as well as the Association of National Industrialists and Businessmen (Ulusal Sanayici ve İş Adamları Derne€i–USİAD), representing the interests of the left wing Kemalists. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the Association of Democratic Industrialists and Businessmen (Demokrat Sanayici ve İş Adamlar› Derneği– DEMSİAD) established by the center-right Alevis, the Association of Nationalist Industrialists and Businessmen (Milliyetçi Sanayici ve İş Adamları Derneği–MÜSİAD) known to be ideologically in tandem with the Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi– MHP), and the Association of Autonomous Industrialists and Businessmen (Müstakil Sanayici ve İş Adamları Derneği–MÜSİAD) representing the conservative entrepreneurs. There is even a tendency among the non-conservative media to read MÜSİAD as the Association of Muslim Industrialists and Businessmen as its members are predominantly Muslims. Finally, there is a loose coordinating body of the Presidential Council of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen (Türk Sanayici ve İş Adamları Başkanlık Konseyi) at the very center.

The compulsion to take a side in this deeply polarized climate is dangerous not only because it entails harsh political debates, but it may as well bring further division of the society and threaten the very existence of civil society in Turkey. The increasing polarization in the political and social life is one of the key factors hindering Turkey’s quest for democratization, and it is in this respect that it should receive the due attention.

About Özge Zihnioğlu

PhD Candidate, Dept. of Pol. Science and International Relations, Boğaziçi University