Renegotiating Elite Bargains in (Re)Building the State: Turkey's Constitutional Challenge

By Asli Bali
Submitted to Session P2691 (Rethinking State Formation: Changing Variables, Alternative Frameworks, 2011 Annual Meeting
This paper will argue that a recent series of constitutional crises in Turkey have called into question core bargains struck during the state-building period of the 1920s and 30s. The transformative process now underway in Turkey, as reflected in these constitutional battles, may qualify as a second era of state (re)building in the Turkish context.

The Turkish state formation period was marked by a key bargain between the vanguard state-building military elite and the social elites of Turkey’s Western cities. In exchange for urban elites’ commitment to key ideological preferences – premised on particular conceptions of modernization, secularization and national homogenization – they were granted privileged access to state resources. This bargain between social elites and the state withstood social challenges and pressure for liberalization from alternative constituencies at regular intervals. Initially, demands for liberalization were met with repression through direct military intervention in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Later, the response took the form of indirect intervention, in 1997 and again in 2007. But the underlying social context that enabled military interventionism to restabilize this bargain began to shift in the 1980s as a result of the initiation of neoliberal economic policies and Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union.

In this paper, I argue that following the changes initiated in the 1980s, the sustainability of the elite-state bargain came to depend on the exclusion of new socioeconomic elites from the Anatolian provinces, far less faithful to the core ideological commitments of the state. As the economic stature of these groups grew, attempts to deny their demands for political access became increasingly untenable. Having exhausted their ability to stave off social and political change through military intervention, the traditional elites turned to the judiciary as a final guardian of their privileges. This paper will examine the ensuing constitutional crises and their connection to a process of renegotiation that has transformed the founding-era state-society bargain. I argue that the 2010 constitutional referendum represents a definitive rupture with the original state-building strategy of the Turkish republic, initiating a new period of state-building, centered on renegotiation of core bargains concerning secularism, ethnicity and access to state resources. These changes have paved the way for a period of constitutional renovation premised on a more inclusive set of state-society bargains and a redefinition of citizenship to accommodate (rather than repress) ethnic pluralism and competing conceptions of secularism.