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Turkey: How Far From Consolidation?

From: Journal of Democracy
Volume 7, Number 3, July 1996
pp. 123-138 | 10.1353/jod.1996.0049

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How Far from Consolidation?

On 24 December 1995, Turkey held free and competitive elections for its 550-member, one-chamber parliament, the Grand National Assembly. Turnout was high. Five parties surpassed the 10 percent threshold needed to qualify for seats in parliament. The three biggest vote-getters were the Islamic-oriented Refah (Welfare) Party, with 21.4 percent and 158 seats, the center-right Motherland Party, with 19.7 percent and 133 seats, and the center-right True Path Party, with 19.2 percent and 135 seats. Intent on preventing Refah from forming a government, leaders of Motherland and True Path began intense negotiations. At the end of February 1996, after two months of talks, they announced the formation of a minority coalition government with the support of the Democratic Left Party (14.6 percent and 75 seats).

While the December 1995 balloting was the twelfth consecutive open election that Turkey has held over the last 45 years, the period since 1960 has also witnessed three military interruptions of the democratic process. Each time the military intervened—in 1960, 1971, and 1980—democracy was restored relatively quickly and smoothly, suggesting that the soldiers’ intention on each occasion was a “moderating coup” rather than the creation of a lasting bureaucratic-authoritarian regime. Today, democratic discourses seem to be dominant, and there is little fear of an authoritarian regression. Yet few analysts would call Turkey a stable or consolidated democracy. The continuing elusiveness of consolidation, despite nearly half a century of multiparty politics, indicates a certain malaise and makes Turkey an interesting case for comparative purposes. What are the factors that may help or harm [End Page 123] Turkey’s prospects for democratic consolidation, and what light can recent theoretical and comparative reflection shed on them?

The interests of political scientists are naturally conditioned by the political environment in which they live. Thus during the “second reverse wave of democratization” (roughly from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s), they focused on the crises and breakdowns then besetting democratic regimes. 1 With the advent of the “third wave” of democratization (from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s), interest shifted to authoritarian breakdowns and transitions to democracy. 2 The focus now in the 1990s is clearly on the consolidation of democratic regimes; the trendy topic of the following decade is likely to be the “persistence” or “quality” of democracy, unless a third “reverse wave” comes along to command scholarly attention.

Democratic consolidation, to borrow Adam Przeworski’s apt description, means that democracy “becomes the only game in town, when no one can imagine acting outside the democratic institutions, when all the losers want to do is to try again within the same institutions under which they have just lost.” 3 The concept of democratic consolidation admits both “maximalist” and “minimalist” understandings. The maximalist view emphasizes the embrace of democratic values by most citizens after a long socialization process, while the minimalist view stresses the mere absence of significant challenges to the legiti-macy of democratic institutions—particularly the prevalence of free and competitive elections. 4

Both approaches have problems. If the maximalist approach is carried to the extreme, no democratic regime can be considered truly consolidated. Nor does it square with historical realities, because “in no known case does there appear to have been a majority of democrats before the advent of political democracy.” 5 The minimalist approach, on the other hand, runs the risk of “electoralism,” or equating democratic consolidation simply with the holding of regular, competitive elections. Even a minimal procedural notion of democratic consolidation must include more—the superiority of democratically elected civilian authorities over nonelected (e.g., military) officials, for instance, as well as broad respect and effective guarantees for the basic civil liberties of all citizens.

As defined above, consolidation seems similar to political institutionalization (meaning a situation in which the formal and informal rules of the regime are widely understood and accepted, and thus heavily influence the behavior of the major political actors). This similarity, however, holds only to the extent that the institutionalized patterns of behavior are truly democratic. If they are not—for example, if nonelected authorities enjoy wide tutelary...