November 9, 2010
Summary: Electoral failure, which constitutes a major opportunity for parties to renew their leaders in other democratic systems, does not serve the same function in Turkish politics. Instead, leaders successfully argue that they cannot leave the party leadership vacant under such difficult circumstances. Over the years, in many democracies, countervailing powers, practices and understandings developed to protect against the retention of power by party leaders. However, there continue to be a number of factors that promote such oligarchic practices in Turkey. These include the high concentration of party power at the center, parties’ dependence on public funds, and centralized decisions regarding election candidates.
Party Oligarchy: Why Turkish Political Parties Fail to Change Their Leaders
by İlter Turan
On October 17, the Felicity Party of Turkey elected Necmettin Erbakan as its new president. This move may have appeared unusual to many observers, for Mr. Erbakan is 84 years old. In Turkish politics, being party president is a highly demanding job, and yet television footage of him showed a frail man who needed help to rise from his seat and walk. It is equally unusual that the party had held its regular convention only a couple of months earlier and had re-elected a young academic, Numan Kurtulmuş, as its president. Dr. Kurtulmuş had refused, however, to include Mr. Erbakan’s son, some of his relatives, and members of his inner circle of cronies in the list he proposed for the party executive committee, thereby arousing Mr. Erbakan’s displeasure. Mr. Erbakan mobilized his supporters to challenge the results of the convention in court, alleging procedural irregularities, and succeeded in forcing an extraordinary party convention. Before the convention was held, however, Mr. Kurtulmuş resigned, taking away with him many of the provincial party chiefs and an important number of members. Within two weeks, he had established the People’s Voice Party. Who would run for the now vacant presidency of Felicity Party, on the other hand, remained a mystery until the last moment. Mr. Erbakan’s candidacy was proposed only when the time for electing a party chief came during the convention. He was only three votes short of being elected unanimously. Mr. Erbakan has served as the leader of the National Order Party (19701971), the National Salvation Party (1973-1981), the Welfare Party (19841998), and the Felicity Party (20032004). This string of parties shared similar political and philosophical leanings that included an expanded role for religion in public life and politics. All but the currently active Felicity Party have been proscribed by the Constitutional Court for using religion for political purposes. Under his leadership, these parties have had a mixed record in elections, been part of coalition governments and the opposition, and witnessed mass departures from the party in order to establish a highly successful new party that achieved an electoral majority in the first election it constested. Mr. Erbakan headed these parties except when he was legally unable to do so, as in the case of the Felicity Party after 2004 when he was convicted of having spent Welfare Party funds without being able to account for them.
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The story of Necmettin Erbakan recounted above may be more colorful than those of other party leaders but is by no means unique. Turkish political parties traditionally experience great difficulty in changing leaders. Electoral failure, which constitutes a major opportunity for parties to renew their leaders in other democratic systems, does not serve the same function in Turkish politics. Instead, leaders successfully argue that they cannot leave the party leadership vacant under such difficult circumstances. When the electoral outcome is found to be satisfactory, it is naturally the leader’s achievement. As they move along in years, long service to the party and experience are cited as justifications for keeping their jobs although their energies may be dwindling visibly. Why is it so difficult for Turkish political parties to change their leaders and what are the side effects of their longevities? Oligarchic Propensities In the early 20th century, Swiss-German sociologist Roberto Michels identified the proclivity of leaders, in particular those of organizations with egalitarian beginnings such as the German Social Democratic Party, to pursue a number of policies intended to render their leadership indispensable and unchallenged. Michels recognized that party leaders, by getting elected to the top position, acquired power, status, and material comforts that they were unwilling to lose. Over the years, in many democracies, countervailing powers, practices, and understandings developed to protect against the retention of power by party leaders. However, there continue to be a number of factors that promote such oligarchic practices in Turkey. To begin with, the organizational structure of Turkish political parties, reflecting the administrative traditions of the country, is heavily centralized. The national organs of political parties have the power to remove elected officials of local branches and appoint whomever they prefer. This is justified — as with the national administrative system, where centrally appointed governors can remove elected mayors from their positions — on the grounds of maintaining unity, coherence, and control so that local-level officials do not conduct disapproved activities for which the national bodies may be held accountable. While this may sound reasonable at first sight, it produces highly problematic outcomes. Local party organizations are seen by the voters as extensions of the center, not as effective grassroots organizations through which citizens can bring significant inputs into the political process. Few, therefore, aspire to join political parties. Links between Turkish political parties and society at large are, as a result, rather weak. Local party activists tend to be limited to few individuals whose function is to represent the central organs of the party at the local level. Conversely, when the national leadership senses a challenge taking shape in the periphery against its dominant position, it moves to change the leadership of local branches from which such a challenge emanates. The national organs may even choose to free themselves from the inconvenience of having active and assertive provincial organizations by limiting the number of members they accept. Turkey has seen at least one political party that limited the number of members a subprovincial branch could accept to 149 to escape the legal necessity of holding a convention if the number reached 150.
The imbalance between national organs and local organizations has allowed the former to make key decisions on candidates for national and local office.
The national or central organs of political parties have also been strengthened in recent decades by government grants to major political parties. Based on the percentage of the vote a party has received in the preceding national elections and the number of deputies a party has in the parliament, the government annually transfers public funds to political parties. The amount is tripled in an election year. Ostensibly serving to prevent the domination of political parties by private interests, these grants render parties less dependent on fundraising from supporters, free the national leadership from relying on local party organizations for financial assistance, and also make the latter dependent upon national organs as a source of funds. The imbalance between national organs and local organizations has allowed the former to make key decisions on candidates for national and local office. The laws contain
provisions that allow for primary elections within parties to determine candidates and what rank these candidates will occupy in multi-member district tickets where winners are determined on the basis of proportional representation. But the weakness of local organizations and the desire of the center to consolidate its superiority renders candidate designation almost exclusively the leader’s prerogative. Aspiring candidates ingratiate themselves to the leader rather than search for local support to be placed on the ticket. Many do not have an independent power base but rely on the leader for their electoral successes. In this way, a circle of politicians forms around the leader whose prosperity depends on their staying in favor with him. Needless to say, for these individuals, the changing of a leader is a threat to their power and prosperity. By way of example, in the RPP, which changed its leader recently (Cf. On Turkey, June 14, 2010), a battle between the new leader and his team and those in positions of power under the old leadership is currently gathering momentum. Finally, it should be pointed out that the closing down of parties by military governments and by the Constitutional Court has also unintentionally strengthened the power position of leaders by making them heroes in the eyes of their supporters. An Unchanged Party System What are the consequences of the failure of parties to change their leaders? First, it has made it difficult for parties to adjust to changing social, economic, and political conditions. Changing leaders, after all, is one of the most effective ways for organizations to bring about change. But the difficulties of pursuing such a path have been cited as a major reason for the weakness of Turkey’s opposition parties. Second, if a leader is forced to leave his position as a result of legal struggles or personal faults, he leaves behind a group of loyalists who crave for his return. Through them, the departed leader can continue to wield power in the party. If his replacement exceeds the role of a proxy, then he is challenged by the loyalists. Finally, an inability to change leaders promotes the fragmentation of parties since those who advocate such a change of leadership inevitably leave to establish a new one. The case of the Felicity Party illustrates all of these points, but it would be a mistake to think that the phenomenon is confined to one party. It permeates the entire party system.
İlter Turan, Professor, Bilgi University
İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His previous employment included professorships at Koç University (19931998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the chair of the International Relations Department (1987-1993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political Science Association (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July 12-16, 2009. He is board chair of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics, and foreign policy. His most recent writings have been on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish parliament and its members, and Turkish political parties. He is a frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.
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