In this month’s entry to the History Corner, we remain in 1946 as Mathew Nicolson looks across the Mediterranean to Turkey’s first ever multi-party election. The Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s grip on power was not yet threatened, but this election sewed the seeds of continued democratisation in Turkey.
You can find the Europe Elects Podcast on your favourite podcasting app, or have a listen here:
Hello and welcome to another volume of the Europe Elects History Corner. With apologies for the slight delay, this month we will be remaining in 1946, moving across the Mediterranean to Turkey which held its first multi-party election 75 years ago. So sit back and relax as you enjoy the summer heat and sip on your iced tea as we explore the development of Turkish democracy.
As ever, this election was picked by our Patrons on Patreon. To join them in supporting Europe Elects’ work and to have a say in future History Corner episodes, in addition to other perks, go to patreon.com/europeelects.
July, 1946. A time of growing geopolitical tensions; the United States began a series of nuclear weapon tests in Micronesia; the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun set off a pair of bombs in Jerusalem targeting the British administration; the Philippines gained independence from the United States; and, in Turkey, Ankara University was founded, the first higher education institution established in the modern Turkish republic. Even more significantly, on 21 July the Turkish people went to the polls to elect their new parliament in the country’s first ever multi-party elections.
The Republic of Turkey was declared in 1923, following the resolution of a successful war of independence that saw the modern state reclaim the entirety of Anatolia from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish wartime leader Mustafa Kemal, known from 1934 as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – ‘father of the Turks’ – became the country’s first President, ruling for fifteen years until his death in 1938 at the age of 57.
During this time, Turkey was ruled as a one-party state under the complete political control of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party, or CHP. Elections were held every four years to elect members of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, in which the CHP was the only competing party. Voters did not directly elect Members of Parliament; instead, using the electoral law dating back to 1876, they voted for electors who would go on to elect members to the Grand National Assembly, which then in turn elected the President.
It is difficult to overstate the social and political transformation Turkey experienced under Atatürk’s rule. Every vestige of monarchy was swept away as republican institutions were entrenched in the country, while intense efforts were made to secularise the country, including the abolition of Islamic courts and banning the wearing of religious clothing in public spaces. Aiming to orient the new state firmly westwards, the Ottoman Turkish alphabet derived from Arabic script was replaced by the new Turkish alphabet using Latin script. Women were granted full political rights in 1934, including the right to vote. The republican government also sought to increase political participation across the country; local leaders were now to be elected, although this was not always implemented in practice, and an expansion of compulsory education aimed to increase political participation across the country.
And, to move Turkey further in the mould of a European nation-state, Atatürk pursued a policy of Turkification seeking to enforce a Turkish identity upon all citizens of the Republic, extending the policies implemented during the latter days of the Ottoman Empire which had culminated in the Armenian and Assyrian genocides during the First World War. Minorities were pressured to speak Turkish, a migration system that encouraged assimilation was established, and surnames from non-Turkish backgrounds were either banned or forced to be ‘Turkified.’ This policy of Turkification, it is fair to say, was not a universal success; numerous Kurdish rebellions broke out in the 1920s and ‘30s, providing the roots of tensions that persist to this day.
Opposition parties were not strictly banned in this period of one-party rule; at times Atatürk even encouraged the formation of opposition parties so long as they did not fundamentally challenge his vision for the country. In 1924, a breakaway faction from the CHP formed the Progressive Republican Party, a more conservative party opposed to the authoritarian inclinations of the government. However, the party was accused by the government of participating in a rebellion staged by Kurdish Islamists in 1925 and promptly banned once the rebellion was put down by force.
In 1930, Atatürk actively encouraged the formation of a second opposition party, which would become the Liberal Republican Party, also to the right of the CHP. This party’s lifespan would be even shorter, dissolved by its own leader after only three months to prevent conservative opponents of Atatürk’s secularisation policies taking control of the party. Opposition in a muted form continued after 1930 through a small independent group in the Grand National Assembly, who successfully elected a handful of CHP-approved MPs in subsequent elections. However, this would not develop into a coherent party grouping nor, due to their reliance on approval by the CHP, any kind of effective opposition force.
Unlike other one-party systems, there was never a complete merger between the party and the state, although the CHP had complete control over Turkey’s government. But although opposition parties were not formally banned, the political environment created by Atatürk whereby his reforms and vision could not be substantially challenged in effect enforced the continuation of one-party rule.
Despite his desire for some political opposition, it would be incorrect to refer to Atatürk as a democrat, at least in terms of his immediate priorities. Although regularly professing the intention for Turkey to develop into a multi-party democracy, there was a belief among the governing elite that the Turkish people were unable to be trusted with self-governance until the transformation of the country had been completed. The possibility that a free election would bring to power a government committed to opposing or reversing many of Atatürk’s reforms was also a consideration.
Turkey thereby remained a one-party state for the remainder of Atatürk’s life and initially under his successor as President, his long-term Prime Minister İsmet İnönü. During İnönü’s presidency the CHP increasingly nominated multiple candidates for each seat, providing voters with a degree of choice, though all candidates remained party-approved.
It was only after the Second World War, amid international pressure for democratisation and growing divisions between statists and liberals within the CHP, that Turkey developed a sustained multi-party system. When Turkey signed the Charter of the United Nations in 1945, several CHP parliamentarians pressed the party to commit to genuine democratic reforms in line with the Charter’s principles. These MPs gained the support from parts of the press, which increasingly criticised the one-party system. The Turkish government also hoped it might be able to benefit from the US Marshall Plan, an enormous programme of financial support for Europe introduced after the war, if it could present itself as having greater democratic legitimacy.
The government had also alienated key parts of its support base during the war as it boosted military spending in case Turkey were to be dragged into the conflict. Inflationary policies were pursued, price controls implemented and a wealth tax introduced. These policies particularly affected the civil service and middle class, who comprised important pillars of CHP support, and added to the pressure mounting against the government after the war.
Tensions within the CHP came to a head in 1946 and several MPs were expelled from the party and subsequently went on to form the Democratic Party, oriented again to the right of the CHP. The Democratic Party however did not substantially diverge from the central ideology of the modern Turkish state, known by this time as Kemalism. It was slightly less hostile to Islam but did not fundamentally oppose Atatürk and İnönü’s secularisation policies. The party’s main point of divergence was in economic policy, seeking a greater role for private industries in the Turkish economy.
Under increasing pressure and alarmed at the amount of support received by the Democratic Party, the government conceded several democratic reforms. Firstly, the indirect electoral system was replaced with a form of majoritarian First Past the Post which gave every seat in a province to the party which won a plurality of the provincial vote. The electoral law was also amended to make it easier for new parties to be formed – the only formal bar now was that parties could not be based on religion or race. Elections were also brought forward one year ahead of schedule to ensure the Democratic Party would not have time to organise an effective election campaign.
The 1946 legislative election was the first in the history of the Turkish republic to be contested by more than one political party but it was not held under free or fair conditions. The CHP benefited from enormous corruption by loyal local and provincial administrators, enabled by the lack of a secret ballot. Democratic Party activists complained that they had been prevented from monitoring the election; ballots were counted in secret and swiftly destroyed once the result was announced. And caught off-guard by the snap election, the Democratic Party only even contested half the country’s constituencies, ensuring it could not feasibly win enough seats to unseat the CHP.
The Democratic Party was led into the election by İnönü’s former Prime Minister, Celâl Bayar, which did grant a degree of legitimacy to the electoral opposition. But the CHP ultimately won an easy landslide victory, netting 395 seats to the Democratic Party’s 64 alongside six independent MPs, maintaining its dominance in the Grand National Assembly for the next four years. Most of the country accordingly elected CHP MPs, although Istanbul provided a strong vote for the Democratic Party, accounting for around a third of its MPs. Turnout reached 85%, indicating a high degree of public interest in the vote, flawed though it was. The election results provoked condemnation from the Democratic Party, and some newly-elected MPs even threatened to resign their seats in protest.
Nevertheless, the 1946 election proved to be an important stepping stone in Turkey’s gradual democratisation. Unlike its predecessors, the Democratic Party survived more than a handful of months, providing formal opposition to İnönü and the CHP for the first time. Rather than suppress the Democratic Party as with previous opposition parties, İnönü opted to co-exist and tolerate the parliamentary opposition.
Although still highly lopsided in favour of the CHP, Turkey had abandoned its one-party rule in favour of a two-party system. The Democratic Party used this platform to build its presence in Turkish society, paving the way for the party’s shock landslide victory in 1950 and the first democratic transfer of power in Turkish history. Celâl Bayar would go on to become the country’s first non-CHP President, serving for ten years until being deposed in the 1960 military coup. Turkish democracy would continue to have many, often severe obstacles, during and after the Democratic Party’s rule, but the emergence of multi-party politics inaugurated in 1946 was a key development moving the country in a democratic direction.
Arslah, D. Ali, ‘The Evaluation of Parliamentary Democracy in Turkey and Turkish Political Elites,’ HAOL 6 (2005), pp. 131-41.
McCally, Sarah P., ‘Party Government in Turkey,’ The Journal of Politics 18.2 (1956), pp. 297-323.
Sütçü, Güliz, ‘Democratic Party and Democracy in Turkey: With Special Reference to Celal Bayar and Adnan Menderes,’ (unpublished PhD thesis, Bilkent University, 2011).
Zurcher, Erik J., Turkey: A Modern History (London, 2004).