Turkey in Transition: Politics, society and foreign policy

by Ebru Canan Sokullu (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 256 Pages


This book gives a sheer framework for the Turkish story of transition in politics, society, and foreign affairs during the Justice and Development Party era. This book expands upon transitions in political and societal fabric of the country together with its eventual reorientation of foreign policy in broader regional and global contexts. The themes covered in this book are not only placed in a historical context but also provide an analytical insight into the 2000s. The individual chapters may be read in isolation. Readers who are interested in Turkish politics and foreign policy can find this book an easy read and gain a detailed understanding of the current state of art. This book serves as a supplementary course book at undergraduate and graduate levels in the fields of political science and international relations, and Turkish politics.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Turkey in Transition (Ebru Canan-Sokullu)
  • Part One Politics and Society in Transition
  • Democracy and a Radical System Shift (Arda Can Kumbaracıbaşı)
  • Electoral Behavior: Urban Myths versus Realities (Yılmaz Esmer, Duygu Karadon, Simay Şevval Baykal)
  • Turkish Secularism and Challenges of Transformation (Zekeriya Tüzen)
  • Political Culture: A Tale of Two Civilizations (Yılmaz Esmer, Ayça Okçuoğlu, Sebahat Kurutaş)
  • Populism in Power: The Case of Turkey (Gaye İlhan Demiryol)
  • Continuity and Change in Turkish Civil Society (Özge Zihnioğlu)
  • Politicizing the Environment: The Ecological Crisis of Turkey (Hande Paker)
  • Popular Culture: Resurrection of Ottoman Nostalgia (Çağkan Ubay)
  • Part Two Foreign Policy in Transition
  • Transformation of Foreign Policy in the AKP Era: Realpolitik Codes versus Instrumental Soft-Power (Ebru Canan-Sokullu)
  • Turkey’s Activism in the Middle East: The Role of Structural Factors (Yasemin Bilgel)
  • Turkey and the European Union Relations in Transition: Challenges and Future Prospects (Selcen Öner)
  • Turkey in Africa: From Aid to Arms (Esra Pakin-Albayrakoğlu)
  • About the Contributors

Ebru Canan-Sokullu

Introduction: Turkey in Transition

There has always been a scholarly interest in understanding Turkish politics with its internal and external dynamics since the very foundation of the Republic. This interest has become intensified over the Cold War years when the country positioned itself more clearly within the Western political and alliance systems. The end of the Cold War did not only translate into a systemic change but also triggered seismic shocks in domestic political and societal structures of states, which altered power constellations and contributed to the emergence of new political agents. It was not only the traditional authority structures that have been replaced with the new ones, namely the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) (AKP), but also at the societal level caused the alteration of norms, needs and preferences.

This book sets out to examine and explain certain key aspects of contemporary Turkish politics, society and foreign policy. This edited volume is not organized to cover conventional topics in politics and society manuscripts. Its main task is to expand upon current transitions in political and societal fabric of the country together with its eventual reorientation of foreign policy in a broader regional and global context. It is designed not only to give an introduction, but also to give a sheer framework for Turkish story of transition in politics, society, and foreign affairs to locate the debates in theoretical discussions. However, the approach taken here is not to defend a particular school of thought.

Turkey’s contemporary political, strategic and cultural dynamics cannot be understood without a careful examination of its past. The themes covered in this volume are not only placed in a historical context but also provide an analytical insight into the transition into politics and society under the AKP rule of two decades. As transition studies demonstrate how the emergence of a new agent changes domestic and external fabric of a state (Acemoğlu and Robinson 2001; Adams 1992; Rumer 2007) AKP not only has fueled a multilayered transformation of politics and society in Turkey but also it has designed a new international outlook for the country.

Domestic and external domains are two inseparable pillars of understanding the transition in Turkey during the AKP rule in the past two decades. This book addresses the main dynamics of transition in two parts. Part I starts with bare institutional outlines of Turkish political system, history of democratization with ←9 | 10→critical junctures, and roads to democracy. It addresses fundamental features of politics and society, analyzes the patterns of voting behavior and main dynamics of political culture. This part also critically assesses the populist trends in politics, debates on the secular nature of the state, contested nature of ecological politics, civic activism and transition in civil society, and a much-debated shift in popular culture with increasing neo-Ottomanist aspirations induced by successive AKP governments.

In Chapter 1, Arda Can Kumbaracıbaşı analyzes the evolution of Turkish democracy and its major shortcomings. The inherent problems of democracy in Turkey become apparent when several inter-connected areas are examined. These areas relate to levels of party (and party system) institutionalization; levels of intra-party democracy; effects of the ten-percent electoral threshold; lack of fair representation in the legislature; personalized party politics; high levels of party system fragmentation and electoral volatility; non-cooperative nature of party relations; a top-down imposed democratic culture; a traditionally hindered civil society; lack of autonomy in universities and media; patronage and clientelism; party closures; effects of social cleavages in polarizing society; level of neutrality in judiciary; and military interventions that constantly interrupt the flow of politics. Incorporating the literature on democratic consolidation into empirical observation of a transition of politics in Turkey, this chapter argues that democracy is still far from being stabilized and leaves potential for future reform initiatives.

Free and fair elections are the sine qua non of democratic regimes. Consequently, questions about why and how citizens vote is a pivotal issue in studies of political behavior. Although philosophical and theoretical inquiries of voter behavior go all the way back to ancient Greece, systematic and quantitative research on the subject has a history of only six or seven decades. Sample surveys and, more recently, experimental methods are the main research tools that present-day researchers avail themselves of. In addition, we are more than likely to read more and more research based on “big data” of various sorts and from myriad sources. The vast literature on voting behavior can very roughly be viewed under three categories, namely, sociological, social-psychological and economic-rational approaches. A relatively recent newcomer to these is what is referred to as the biological or the neuroscientific approach. Yılmaz Esmer, Duygu Karadon and Simay Şevval Baykal, in Chapter 2, review Turkey’s election results with a critical eye for all these four approaches.

Secularization theory provides an analytical guide to study dynamic interaction between state/politics and religion in western societies. It also provides significant groundwork for studies on religion and politics in the Turkish context ←10 | 11→since the foundation of Republic of Turkey in 1923. Zekeriya Tüzen, in Chapter 3, identifies the type of secularism coloring state-religion relations in Turkey since its foundation, and presents the challenges, namely Islamism surrounding the transformation of Turkish secularism through dynamic interactions of political actors and secular state institutions in the twenty-first century. The rise of Islamism in Turkish politics undermined radical credentials of Turkish secularism, but challenged its transformation to a liberal one. In the first period (1920s-1940s), secularization was an elite project that proposed modernization of the country along with the debates on institutional differentiation between state and religion. In the second period (1950s-1990s), religion returned to public realm with its traditional features and representatives in the society. In this period secular notion of the Republic was in status quo position in defining relationship between state/politics and religion. In the last period during the 2000s, the secularization debate has revealed uncertainties about the status of the secular state and the role of religion in shaping Turkish politics and society. Tüzen examines whether a neo-secularization perspective constitutes a well-functioning theoretical framework to explain the changing role of religion on micro, meso and macro levels of analysis comprising the last period of Turkish secularization. He concludes that due to the lack of secular establishment in executive and institutional power, particularly after transition to presidential republic, Turkish secularism is now in crisis.

Whether we take the Tanzimat Edict of 1839 as the symbolic milestone marking the start of the Turkish/Ottoman Westernization efforts, or we prefer even earlier events such as Vakayi Hayriye or even the short-lived Lale Devri, contemporary Turkey’s political culture has been shaped by the never-ending struggle between the two mindsets. Recent years, however, have witnessed serious levels of political polarization which is closely correlated with the deeply-rooted cultural schism. Yılmaz Esmer, Ayça Okçuoğlu and Sebahat Kurutaş, in Chapter 4, describe and analyze the main dimensions of contemporary Turkish political culture against this historical background. Their chapter offers a detailed examination of democratic values based on survey research findings of the last three decades.

Populist movements, parties, leaders, and governments have been proliferating around the world at an alarming speed, prompting a renewed interest in the study of populism. This phenomenon has given rise to a renewed interest in the study of populism. While populism itself is not a new phenomenon, the new populisms seem to exhibit important differences. Discontent and anti-establishment discourse play a very important role in populism literature and being in power itself is perceived as an antidote to populism. Others claim that ←11 | 12→populism in power damages democracy from within, and even facilitates transition to authoritarianism. In Chapter 5, Gaye İlhan Demiryol studies Turkish case as an example of populism. She examines the populist elements of Turkish political system with a systematic overview of the recent literature. Her examination sheds light into the rise of populism in Turkey based on the argument that dissent and opposition are seen as integral elements of populism.

Throughout Turkey’s modern history, civil society simultaneously embodied and reflected continuity and change. On one hand, political environment at home and abroad has changed. New actors and issues entered civil society, while some others drifted away. On the other hand, certain key features of Turkish civil society and associationalism have remained constant. Özge Zihnioğlu, in Chapter 6, accounts for the changes that Turkish civil society has gone through over the last two decades. To this end, she presents how Turkish civic space diversified with new groups like human rights organizations from the 1990s until the early 2000s. Her analysis also shows how European Union (EU) funds led to first brief-case non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and later, together with civil society co-optation, to government-organized NGOs. This chapter discusses in greater detail the issues of project culture and funding dependency among other organizations. The last section of the chapter examines the changes in Turkish civil society over the past years. Chapter 6 shows how traditional civic organizations increasingly shy away from overtly political activities and take on less political discourse. As far as the transition is concerned, Zihnioğlu examines the new civic activism, how civic activists confront Turkey’s current challenging environment and the place they gain in the changing outlook of Turkish civil society.

Environment has constituted another contested political sphere in Turkey. Ecological politics has emerged as a microcosm that holds the key to understanding how contemporary state-society relations play out in Turkey. Despite a well-established environmental legal framework, four decades of environmental mobilization, a serious potential for renewable options, and a current global trend of divestment from fossil fuels in the post-Paris context, Turkey has pursued highly unsustainable growth and energy policies in the past fifteen years. The construction of hydroelectric, thermal and nuclear power plants as well as urban renewal and mining projects, and megaprojects has been shaped by the neoliberal policies of the ruling party AKP, such as deregulation, privatisation, re-regulation, and commodification. The resulting severe ecological crisis is manifested both locally (e.g. loss of habitats, pollution, decreasing biodiversity, loss of livelihoods as a result of the construction of small river type as well as large hydroelectric dams, loss of commons) and globally (e.g. the rise of Turkey ←12 | 13→to the fourth place among countries which increased their greenhouse gas emissions the fastest). The ecological crisis has triggered an expansion and diversification of environmental civil society represented by a wide array of vibrant grassroots movements and national civil society organizations, which contend with what has become a hegemony building process over environmental issues. Hande Paker, in Chapter 7, provides a detailed overview of the roles that state and civil society play in relation to environmental issues.

The re-making of cultural state of Turkish society and the transformation of Turkish popular culture has gained a significant momentum over the past two decades through the movies and television series about the “glory days” of the Ottoman Empire as a part of prosthetic neo-Ottomanist memory construction. This is a typology of memory that is not organically based, but nonetheless experienced with one’s own body by means of a wide range of cultural technologies. Chapter 8 illustrates the transformation of Turkish popular culture through the TV series about the ‘glory days’ of the Ottoman Empire as a part of prosthetic neo-Ottomanist memory construction. In this chapter, Çağkan Ubay analyses the transition in Turkish popular culture represented in the form of an Ottoman nostalgia focusing on televised serials and movies.

The second part of this volume provides the reader with a systematic study of contemporary Turkish foreign policy in the most contested regional constellations. Part II looks at the history of relationship between Turkey’s traditional allies and maps out the dynamics of transition from strategic alliances to troubled partnerships. It elaborates on the principles of Turkish foreign policy making in the twentieth century to better understanding of Turkey’s approach to its relations with the West (Europe and the US), the Middle East, and with a recently growing interest in foreign policy activism in Africa.

Turkey has always held a unique position regarding its geopolitical location, strategic extension, and socio-cultural dynamics in international and regional politics. The end of the Cold War resulted in a global change from traditional hard security concerns and norms, which were exclusively defined and guided by military considerations, to a soft security agenda (mainly occupied with issues like economic and social conditions, environmental damage, ethnic and religious civil conflict, terrorism, and organized crime). Turkish foreign and security policy has undergone under a systemic shift under successive governments of AKP. Ebru Canan-Sokullu, in Chapter 9, examines transformation of realpolitik codes of Turkish foreign policy interests into a rather flexible foreign and security policy approach in terms of ad hoc partnerships and short-term policy interests, paradoxically driven by instrumental and non-sustainable short-term soft power motives. Transition in Turkish foreign policy during the AKP period ←13 | 14→is unpacked in terms of the regional concentration on the Middle East and Turkey’s positioning within the Russo-American nexus during the war in Syria.

Chapter 10 further analyzes the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy from regional isolationism to regional engagement in the post-Cold War era. Yasemin Bilgel demonstrates that structural factors rather than normative and domestic factors can best explain the shift in Turkey’s foreign policy. As opposed to views that attribute the change to domestic and ideological factors, she argues that structural factors can best explain the change in Turkey’s foreign policy. The end of the Cold War and the structural change from bipolarity to unipolarity increased not only Turkey’s operational space in the region, but also its concerns for internal stability stemming from the spill-over effects of regional instability. This structural change enabled and at times, necessitated Turkey to pursue to an active regional policy. While Turkey’s active policy in the region is often seen as an attempt for regional dominance, a close analysis of Turkey’s foreign policy reveals that Turkey has acted with a security goal of regional stability as opposed to regional domination. Turkey concerned with economic development and threats to its internal stability, views regional stability as a means to maximize its power. When Turkey diverged from its foreign policy centered on regional stability, internal stability concerns pushed Turkey for regional collaboration to secure regional stability.

Western pillar has always been identified as one of the major cornerstones of Turkish foreign policy despite the ebbs and flows in Turkey’s relations with Europe. In Chapter 11 Selcen Öner examines the recent moments of turbulence in Turkey- EU relations and critically assesses the argument that Turkey is EU’s “strategic partner”. Turkey made her first application to European Economic Community in 1959 and became offıcial candidate in 1999 at the Helsinki Summit. The membership negotiations between Turkey and the EU started on 3 October 2005. After an initial successful Europeanization process relations between Turkey and the EU stagnated first due to the “Cyprus issue.” Despite this slow progress in opening chapters which might lead to full membership of Turkey, a strategic rapprochement occurred between Turkey and EU thanks to the refugee deal that was accepted in March 2016. Chapter 11 addresses the setbacks in reform process in Turkey especially after the coup attempt in July 2016 and examines the challenges to and prospects for Turkey-EU relations focusing on impacts of financial crisis, solidarity crisis within the EU and the Brexit crisis internal to the EU as well as the rise of anti-immigrant and populist radical right parties in Europe.

Last but not least, this volume addresses Turkey’s soft power agenda shaping its African policy that has been prioritized by successive AKP governments over ←14 | 15→the past two decades. Chapter 12 examines transition in Turkey’s focus in Africa policy from foreign aid to defense partnerships. The post-Cold War period set the stage for a policy of active engagement with this continent, where Turkey showed extensive presence in diplomatic, economic and cultural terms. At the outset, Ankara preferred to take the multilateral approach in African affairs to prove its worth as a reliable partner in the new world order and to gain further knowledge and experience in this part of the world. With the advent of the AKP to power in 2002, initiatives undertaken in Africa have broadened in scope and scale. Esra Albayrakoğlu-Pakin, in Chapter 12, argues that as a departure from the past, Turkey displays an increasingly unilateral yet pluralist approach based on collaboration of state and non-state actors.



ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Justice and Development Party Democracy International Relations Regional Politics Domestic Politics
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 256 pp., 12 fig. b/w, 11 tables.

Biographical notes

Ebru Canan Sokullu (Volume editor)

Ebru Canan-Sokullu is a professor of political sciences and international relations at Bahçes¸ehir University in Istanbul, Turkey. Her research focuses on security politics, public opinion on foreign policy, military operations, and transatlantic relations.


Title: Turkey in Transition: Politics, society and foreign policy