The Settlement Problem of Social Democracy in Turkey

The Settlement Problem of Social Democracy in Turkey

Social democracy as a part of political movements and trends in Turkey can be traced back to the modernization project of Republic of Turkey, which was founded after the collapse of Ottoman Empire, including its process of socialization (toplumsallaşma) and politicization (siyasallaşma). Social democracy’s practice in Turkey appears to be like an endless symphony in both past and current political debates on Turkey. The main debate has been the representation problems of the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party – CHP) which was the mainstream founder political party and whose origins were based on political orientations of bureaucratic, military and civil elites –founders of the Republic. The first period of social democracy, “left of centre” as a first political preference of the CHP, was initiated by İsmet İnönü who was amongst the party’s legendary and charismatic leaders. This was a genuine political necessity due to “state’s mind” (devlet aklı) in order to deal against socialist party, the Türkiye İşçi Partisi (Workers’ Party of Turkey – TİP). The TİP emerged significantly and effectively as a political party that got organized among the working class due to impact of political conjuncture, whose political cadres were staffed by intellectuals and which adopted mainly socialist discourse. The CHP’s choice of new discourse –defined as “left of centre”– was originated, in a way, as a precaution against the TİP, which was proceeding rapidly in political arena. In the further process, Ecevit, who represented the young generation and had come to political stage together with İnönü, but turned his way to a more populist discourse, reacted against the 12th March Memorandum 1971 and against İnönü. These reactions helped him to gain political success and he started to use terminology of democratic left wing. This left wing ideology demonstrated the beginning of endeavour for gathering political coordinates which include both Scandinavian social democracy and populist left wing ecletism.

As a matter of fact, the first serious debates on social democracy had been amongst political dynamics and political actors following the 12th September 1980 coup d’état. Debates continued severely among political cosmopolitism marking that period, new political actors, identities, and fractions.

One of the first political parties which established following the 12th September, 1980 coup d’état was the Sosyal Demokrasi Partisi (Social Democratic Party – SODEP). It was founded by the old CHP cadres– leftist intellectuals and academicians. The SODEP prepared a new meaningful and effective program in which the universal values of social democracy were inherent. Subsequently, the SODEP merged with the Halkçı Parti (People’s Party – HP), which was another party established following the 12th September 1980 coup. Following the merge of these two political parties, the new party was called as the Sosyal Demokrat Halkçı Parti (Social Democratic Party for People – SHP).  The practice with the SHP is taking place in current debates of the CHP in a time that worldwide political debates are based on redefinition and reformation of social democracy. These debates consist mostly of endeavour for combining universal social democracy and the CHP’s historical-political-ideological heritage.

This endeavour for creating a political-intellectual-ideological structure is still going on. However, attempt for creating a new discourse through leaders and individuals does not reach any solution. Administrative cadres keep changing, nevertheless, same characteristics of administration mind-sets remain. The other significant debate is about which party model would create a perspective for a political party in power (iktidar).

Social democratic parties are political institutions which can create a significant option with their members, organizations, and programs and whose political, ideological positions are clear. Nevertheless, the practice of social democracy in Turkey has created an eclectic model that attempts to exist with different political culture, different discourse, action choice, and party models. Revision of organization, members, program, intra-party vertical – intra-party horizontal relationships (parti içi yatay – dikey işleyiş), mechanisms of choice and decision cannot be achieved successfully in a democratic way as desired. A very interesting political mechanism and political apparatus has been created. If we think in a Michelian way, even more interesting form of “iron law of oligarchy”¹ dominates the CHP.

The CHP which claims itself as the defender of social democracy has two major problems. The first one is party’s unclear position with respect to its political-ideological identity, losing the war against political heritage of the party, and unsuccessful attempts of overcoming these problems through political actors and figures. The second one is the problem of ‘party model’, in other terms, problem of party model which is supposed to combine both political and ideological layers. For instance, the problem of how intra-party operation, intra-party elections, and intra-party power mechanism would be.

Creation of an alternative to a political power cannot be thought independent from political-ideological principles and values of a political party, its political-ideological stance, its political coordinates, and its program goals. Consistency of program goals would provide the party to develop a discourse and position which is much consistent, kenned, and clear in all areas. This coherence would develop and support the feelings of reliance, trust, and belonging to the party. In another way, goal of the party program means power authenticity (iktidar gerçekliği) that has helped social democratic parties to come to power in other countries, especially the last experiences of ruling political parties in the West Europe became possible due to these attempts. For instance, Blair’s attempts of transforming the Labour Party model and his idea of the Third Way, Schröder’s experience of radical centre in Germany with the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Germany Social Democratic Party – SPD), and many more examples demonstrate the success of these experiences in terms of achieving power. What we are lack of is the failure of creating a new power paradigm and manifesto because of two core problems mentioned previously. The solution of both problems is indispensable for a political movement that targets to be a party in power. The CHP should solve those two problems and should create a new power manifesto with the help of its political cadre’s reserve, and then this manifesto should be organized in society, should be penetrated in all dynamics of producer and consumer. This will pave the way for power.

One of the other impasses of the CHP, which is the pioneer of social democracy peculiar to Turkey, is that the issues, which in turn will end up by path, structure, and model change, are not sufficiently discussed. Instead, policies are being implemented in an engineering way of policy-making without making sufficient analysis and without asking opinions of intra-party mechanisms. Even though these practices and methods do not lead the party to any targeted outcomes, the CHP insistently continues to implement them. In this way, democratic left which has been defined many times through a leader, new left, Anatolian left, and current political eclecticism, has not achieved any successful outcomes.

What has to be done in order to overcome this situation is to give up this mentality and to develop a brand new political and social model which consists of developing new political discourse and policies without tackling too much different faiths and identity questions. Economy, politics, foreign policy, political risks and gains should be discussed from worldwide perspective of social democracy and solutions should be announced through a power manifesto.

Beside these problems mentioned above, another problem is an implication of the post-12th September coup d’état –dealignment of class profiles, that used to conflict with each other within certain degree of economic, political, and social harmony and that used to influence political dynamics from a particular social political consciousness. The dealignment of the class profiles led to the emergence of new class profiles and strata. Nevertheless, these new class profiles and strata whose socio-economic levels have differentiated could not be analysed. These new class formations can be categorized as lower-middle, lower-middle-upper, etc.; however they cannot be explained through classical sociological or economic framework. It is also crucial to see that the post-12th September coup d’état period significantly transformed socio-economic class profiles in Turkey. This situation led to political, economic, and other power relations to change hands and positions, and this situation still goes on. Despite all these radical changes, there is still not any important analysis, research, data, and political decision about which social economic basis, social democracy should rely on, should address to. Therefore, fundamental, current policies and policies during the electoral campaigns have been implemented from a culturist discourse that is based on some particular values –especially modern lifestyle values. In short, due to lack of socio-economic class analysis and also due to insufficient data on such an issue, an eclectic discourse following the conjunctural facts, leads to inconsistency, distrust and political volatility in policy implementation process.

Another important problem is weakness of intellectual capacity and reserve in the social democracy experience in the CHP. The debates on these unending problems still goon in visual-published-auditory media; however a new cadre which will master on all these debates and intellectual discourse does not exist. There is a big problem in this movement to raise new individuals and cadres.

The other problem is that in order to get more votes from nationalist and conservative constituency, the CHP tries to transfer political actors whose political and sociological capacity had vanished. It always ends up as a failure. What should be done in order to come in power and make social democratic policies is to convince nationalist and conservative people towards social democratic ideas and policies. A significant reconciliation with these people is necessary for a historical change, and in these situations, there is nothing to do with nationalist and conservative political actors. A historical reconciliation should be achieved through the synergy and magnetic power of basic principles of social and democracy, and equality, freedom, solidarity, social justice, equivalence. Search for an alliance should not be tried with symbolized old political figures of nationalist and conservatives, but through political reason, understanding, and social democracy’s moral vision in a worldwide perspective.

It is important to look at very diverse factors when we observe foundation and positioning process of social democracy in Turkey. The compulsory political choice of CHP in order to prevent the rise of the TIP before the September 12th coup d’état and then foundation of SODEP-SHP(HP)-CHP and their experiences show that the lack of strong and settled inheritance in terms of party-organization-program. Other problems are the lack of creating intellectual coordinates of policy-ideology and of constructing model party, or model of party, for both political and democratic party law. Leaving these problems unsolved and not making meaningful policies and strategies will make perspective of social democracy, which is in the process of positioning in Turkey, ambiguous, and puts its political coordinates into a debatable position. This may make social democracy face with an existential problem.

Cihan Aydın

Please cite this publication as follows:

Aydın C. (November, 2014), “The Settlement Problem of Social Democracy in Turkey”, Vol. III, Issue 11, pp.43-47, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


¹ Iron law of oligarchy: Michels, Robert. 1911. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Society.




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