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November 9, 2010

Summary: Electoral failure,

Party Oligarchy: Why Turkish Political
which constitutes a major op-
portunity for parties to renew
Parties Fail to Change Their Leaders
their leaders in other democratic
systems, does not serve the by İlter Turan
same function in Turkish politics.
Instead, leaders successfully
argue that they cannot leave the On October 17, the Felicity Party of of Felicity Party, on the other hand,
party leadership vacant under Turkey elected Necmettin Erbakan as remained a mystery until the last
such difficult circumstances. its new president. This move may have moment. Mr. Erbakan’s candidacy
Over the years, in many democ- appeared unusual to many observers, was proposed only when the time for
racies, countervailing powers, for Mr. Erbakan is 84 years old. In electing a party chief came during the
practices and understandings Turkish politics, being party president convention. He was only three votes
developed to protect against the
is a highly demanding job, and yet short of being elected unanimously.
retention of power by party lead-
ers. However, there continue to
television footage of him showed a frail
man who needed help to rise from his Mr. Erbakan has served as the leader
be a number of factors that pro- of the National Order Party (1970-
mote such oligarchic practices seat and walk.
1971), the National Salvation Party
in Turkey. These include the high
concentration of party power at
It is equally unusual that the party (1973-1981), the Welfare Party (1984-
the center, parties’ dependence had held its regular convention 1998), and the Felicity Party (2003-
on public funds, and centralized only a couple of months earlier and 2004). This string of parties shared
decisions regarding election had re-elected a young academic, similar political and philosophical
candidates. Numan Kurtulmuş, as its president. leanings that included an expanded
Dr. Kurtulmuş had refused, however, role for religion in public life and
to include Mr. Erbakan’s son, some politics. All but the currently active
of his relatives, and members of his Felicity Party have been proscribed
inner circle of cronies in the list he by the Constitutional Court for using
proposed for the party executive religion for political purposes. Under
committee, thereby arousing Mr. his leadership, these parties have had a
Erbakan’s displeasure. Mr. Erbakan mixed record in elections, been part of
mobilized his supporters to challenge coalition governments and the opposi-
the results of the convention in court, tion, and witnessed mass departures
alleging procedural irregularities, and from the party in order to establish
succeeded in forcing an extraordinary a highly successful new party that
party convention. Before the conven- achieved an electoral majority in the
tion was held, however, Mr. Kurtulmuş first election it constested. Mr. Erbakan
resigned, taking away with him many headed these parties except when he
of the provincial party chiefs and was legally unable to do so, as in the
Offices an important number of members. case of the Felicity Party after 2004
Within two weeks, he had established when he was convicted of having spent
Washington, DC • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris the People’s Voice Party. Who would Welfare Party funds without being able
Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara • Bucharest run for the now vacant presidency to account for them.

The story of Necmettin Erbakan recounted above may be organizations through which citizens can bring significant
more colorful than those of other party leaders but is by inputs into the political process. Few, therefore, aspire to
no means unique. Turkish political parties traditionally join political parties. Links between Turkish political parties
experience great difficulty in changing leaders. Electoral and society at large are, as a result, rather weak. Local
failure, which constitutes a major opportunity for parties to party activists tend to be limited to few individuals whose
renew their leaders in other democratic systems, does not function is to represent the central organs of the party at
serve the same function in Turkish politics. Instead, leaders the local level. Conversely, when the national leadership
successfully argue that they cannot leave the party leader- senses a challenge taking shape in the periphery against its
ship vacant under such difficult circumstances. When the dominant position, it moves to change the leadership of
electoral outcome is found to be satisfactory, it is naturally local branches from which such a challenge emanates. The
the leader’s achievement. As they move along in years, long national organs may even choose to free themselves from
service to the party and experience are cited as justifica- the inconvenience of having active and assertive provincial
tions for keeping their jobs although their energies may be organizations by limiting the number of members they
dwindling visibly. Why is it so difficult for Turkish political accept. Turkey has seen at least one political party that
parties to change their leaders and what are the side effects limited the number of members a subprovincial branch
of their longevities? could accept to 149 to escape the legal necessity of holding a
convention if the number reached 150.
Oligarchic Propensities
In the early 20th century, Swiss-German sociologist Roberto The imbalance between national
Michels identified the proclivity of leaders, in particular
those of organizations with egalitarian beginnings such as organs and local organizations
the German Social Democratic Party, to pursue a number
of policies intended to render their leadership indispensable
and unchallenged. Michels recognized that party leaders,
has allowed the former to make
by getting elected to the top position, acquired power,
status, and material comforts that they were unwilling to key decisions on candidates for
lose. Over the years, in many democracies, countervailing
powers, practices, and understandings developed to protect national and local office.
against the retention of power by party leaders. However,
there continue to be a number of factors that promote such The national or central organs of political parties have also
oligarchic practices in Turkey. been strengthened in recent decades by government grants
To begin with, the organizational structure of Turkish to major political parties. Based on the percentage of the
political parties, reflecting the administrative traditions of vote a party has received in the preceding national elections
the country, is heavily centralized. The national organs of and the number of deputies a party has in the parliament,
political parties have the power to remove elected officials the government annually transfers public funds to political
of local branches and appoint whomever they prefer. This parties. The amount is tripled in an election year. Ostensibly
is justified — as with the national administrative system, serving to prevent the domination of political parties by
where centrally appointed governors can remove elected private interests, these grants render parties less dependent
mayors from their positions — on the grounds of main- on fundraising from supporters, free the national leadership
taining unity, coherence, and control so that local-level from relying on local party organizations for financial assis-
officials do not conduct disapproved activities for which the tance, and also make the latter dependent upon national
national bodies may be held accountable. While this may organs as a source of funds.
sound reasonable at first sight, it produces highly problem- The imbalance between national organs and local organi-
atic outcomes. Local party organizations are seen by the zations has allowed the former to make key decisions on
voters as extensions of the center, not as effective grassroots 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 İlter Turan, Professor, Bilgi University
occupy in multi-member district tickets where winners are İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi
determined on the basis of proportional representation. But University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His
the weakness of local organizations and the desire of the previous employment included professorships at Koç University (1993-
center to consolidate its superiority renders candidate desig- 1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the
nation almost exclusively the leader’s prerogative. Aspiring chair of the International Relations Department (1987-1993), and the
candidates ingratiate themselves to the leader rather than director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East
search for local support to be placed on the ticket. Many do (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political
not have an independent power base but rely on the leader Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Commit-
for their electoral successes. In this way, a circle of politi- tee and a vice president of the International Political Science Associa-
cians forms around the leader whose prosperity depends tion (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair of the 21st World
on their staying in favor with him. Needless to say, for these Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July 12-16, 2009. He is
individuals, the changing of a leader is a threat to their board chair of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the
power and prosperity. By way of example, in the RPP, which board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published
changed its leader recently (Cf. On Turkey, June 14, 2010), in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics, and
a battle between the new leader and his team and those in foreign policy. His most recent writings have been on the domestic and
positions of power under the old leadership is currently international politics of water, the Turkish parliament and its members,
gathering momentum. and Turkish political parties. He is a frequent commentator on Turkish
politics on TV and newspapers.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the closing down of
parties by military governments and by the Constitutional About GMF
Court has also unintentionally strengthened the power The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a non-par-
position of leaders by making them heroes in the eyes of tisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to
their supporters. promoting better understanding and cooperation between North Amer-
ica and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by sup-
An Unchanged Party System porting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere,
What are the consequences of the failure of parties to by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communi-
change their leaders? First, it has made it difficult for ties, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by
parties to adjust to changing social, economic, and political providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the
conditions. Changing leaders, after all, is one of the most transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initia-
effective ways for organizations to bring about change. But tives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from
the difficulties of pursuing such a path have been cited as Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF
a major reason for the weakness of Turkey’s opposition maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition
parties. Second, if a leader is forced to leave his position as a to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has six offices in Europe:
result of legal struggles or personal faults, he leaves behind Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest. GMF also has
a group of loyalists who crave for his return. Through them, smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
the departed leader can continue to wield power in the
party. If his replacement exceeds the role of a proxy, then he About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s
is challenged by the loyalists. Finally, an inability to change
current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis
leaders promotes the fragmentation of parties since those
briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellec-
who advocate such a change of leadership inevitably leave to
tuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers.
establish a new one. The case of the Felicity Party illustrates
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all of these points, but it would be a mistake to think that
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the phenomenon is confined to one party. It permeates the
entire party system.