Ziya Öniş, Koç University
(First Draft-November 2006)
The period since the December 1999 Helsinki Decision has been a period of remarkable economic and political change for Turkey. The impact of the EU was already evident in the context of the 1990s in the process of integration involving the Customs Union Agreement. The Customs Union Agreement which came into effect at the end of 1995 exerted a significant impact in terms of initiating a set of important economic and political reforms. Yet, arguably, the real breakthrough occurred with the pace of transformation dramatically accelerating after 1999. The momentum of “Europeanization” in Turkey has gathered considerable pace once the goal of eventual full-membership of the EU became a concrete possibility with the announcement of Turkey’s candidate country status.1 The objective of the present article is to highlight a specific dimension of this phenomenon namely the role of political parties in Turkey’s recent Europeanization process. Political parties have emerged as agents of Europeanization as well as being transformed in the process of Europeanization itself. A central goal of the article is to underline some of the peculiarities of the Turkish party system and of some of the key political parties as agents of economic and political transformation.
From a comparative perspective, the following aspects of Turkey’s Europeanization appear to be rather striking and paradoxical. Civil society actors have been much more active and vocal in their push for EU membership in the first instance and in the subsequent reform process as compared with the major political parties. Within the civil society, business actors and notably big business have been central actors in Turkey’s Europeanization and reform process.2 Turning to the political parties themselves, one of the remarkable paradoxes of the Turkish experience is that “Islamists” have been transformed much more than their “secularist” counterparts in the process of Europeanization. Indeed, a political party with explicit Islamist roots, the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) has established itself as a vigorous supporter of EU-related reforms following its victory in the elections of November 2002.3 Yet, another paradox is that many of the established parties on the left and the right of the political spectrum can be characterized as “defensive nationalists” in the sense that they are broadly supportive of EU membership in principle, but tend to be uncomfortable with key elements of EU conditionality. Ironically, if membership could be accomplished without reforms, many of these parties would welcome the opportunity. Finally a central paradox which deserves serious emphasis in the current context is that “social democracy” remains for historical and other reasons the least effected element by the on-going Europeanization process. The fact that there is no European-style social democratic party constitutes a serious weakness in the Turkish context contributing to a process of lop-sided democratization. The absence or weakness of social democracy is also critical in terms of the limitations it imposes on the very nature and depth of the Europeanization process.4 Political competition increasingly involves different segments of the “center-right”, taking the form of a contest between “conservative globalists” and “defensive nationalists” with the former providing the main impetus for reform whilst the latter constitutes a serious source of resistance.
Turkey’s recent Europeanization process is characterized by a number of paradoxical features. Civil society organizations, notably business associations, have played a more active role as members of the pro-EU/pro-reform coalition as compared with the principal political parties. “Islamists” appear to have been transformed more radically than their “secularist” counterparts. Indeed, a conservative party of Islamist origin, the AKP has become the principal agent for Turkey’s European transformation following the general elections of 2002. Turkish politics in the post-Helsinki era can be better conceptualized as a contest between a globalists and defensive nationalists which cut across the left and right of the political spectrum. Yet another paradox concerns the absence of a European-style social democratic party in Turkey which represents a major weakness especially in the context of democratization reforms and also given the fact that social democrats in Europe constitute a major source of support for Turkish membership. The example of the CHP, the principal opposition party, is as conservative and nationalistic as some of its center-right counterparts which clearly suggests that simple applications of the concepts of the left and the right contain limited analytical value in terms of identifying the degree of reform orientation of individual parties. A central observation is that party politics in Turkey has a certain conservative bias with competition taking place primarily among different type of parties on the center-right. Clearly, this kind of one-legged or one-dimensional party system constitutes an important handicap from the point of democratic consolidation.
The paper has also tried to explain the recent reversal in the fortunes of the Europeanization process in Turkey following the golden era of 1999-2004 due to a severe nationalist backlash which also appears to have left the AKP government in a rather subdued and defensive position in relation to the reforms and notably the democratization component of the reform process, especially in the face of an impending general election. In the medium-term, our guess is that a newly elected AKP government is likely to re-activate and accelerate the Europeanization process. At the same there exist structural limits to AKP’s reformism, especially on the democratization and foreign policy fronts of the Europeanization process. There is clearly a need for a new kind of social democratic party which is globalist in orientation with a much deeper degree of commitment to Europeanization and reform than any of the existing political parties. Whether such a party will actually emerge is hard to predict at this point although one could safely predict that the CHP will not transform itself in this particular direction in the foreseeable future.