Reconsidering Turkey’s Democratization: Role of Social Resistance in Everyday Life in 1939-1945

By Murat Metinsoy
Submitted to Session P5024 (Ethnographies of Everyday Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
Democratization; Modernization; Turkish Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
With the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, Turkey witnessed radical modernizing reforms under the Republican People’s Party’s authoritarian single-party regime led by Ataturk. The single party system continued until 1945. Just after World War II, the second president Ismet Inonu opened the doors to democracy by giving the green light to establishment of new parties and associations. Turkey was transformed to democracy without any serious political tension, bloody revolution or insurrection.

Turkey’s such soft landing on democracy from the most authoritarian regime in the Middle East has been one of the most debated subjects of the Turkish history. Scholars have produced different explanations for this astonishing transition. The most widespread explanation is the president Inonu’s and the RPP’s strong desire to establish a liberal-democratic regime. Another explanation emphasizes the social impact of World War II that resulted in widespread social discontent. According to another explanation, the state economic policies, particularly the Wealth Tax and the land reform attempts alienated the landed-interests and mercantile elite from the government and disrupted the coalition between the Kemalist bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie within the RPP. Perhaps the most popular argument underlines the post-war international system, which forced Inonu to make an insightful diplomatic maneuver to get support of the Western powers against the Soviet Russia.

However, scholars have barely touched on the role of society in this process. When they have attempted to explore the social dynamics, they have not gone beyond the society’s general dissatisfaction with the high cost of living and the state economic policies. Especially the effects of the lower-classes such as working class and poor peasants in this process have been ignored so far. Especially the narrow conception of resistance as formal-organized action led scholars to overlook the interactions between the state and society that occurred in everyday life and the people’s daily survival struggles, resistances and loss-minimizing self-defensive strategies devised to cope with exploitation, oppression, high cost of living and many other difficulties introduced by the social impact of the war, the war mobilization and the economic policies. This paper, based on new archival sources, reveals how the ordinary people’s daily resistance played a role in Turkey’s shift to a more liberal polity. It also shows how even under authoritarian governments the social resistance short of rebellion might influence politics albeit indirectly.