Interest in Turkish politics and foreign policy has increased rapidly in recent years. Especially since the Justice and Development Party (JDP) took power and began to pursue a new foreign-policy agenda, scholars in the disciplines of social science and journalism have published numerous books, reports and articles on this topic. Writers have dealt comprehensively with the leadership style of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the foreign policy of the JDP, civil-military relations during the JDP era, and the process of integration into the EU. Mainly because of the unprecedented electoral victories of the JDP, scholars have started to consider the domestic politics of Turkey only in terms of the relationship of that party with other institutional power centers such as the presidency during Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s term, the judiciary, the media and of course the military. Other than some emphasis on the pro-Kurdish Democratic Turkey Party (DTP) in parliament, political parties in opposition have been largely ignored by scholars. Only superﬁ cial explanations were offered about the failure of the opposition and the steady decline of the leftist parties. In order to understand the situation of the opposition parties, and especially the poor performance of the left in general and the Republican People’s Party (RPP) in particular, we need more detailed and comprehensive studies. Sinan Ciddi’s study of the Republican People’s Party is an important step toward comprehending the current state of Turkish politics.
Ciddi outlines the emergence and development of social democracy in Turkey and the reasons for its failure. The book is divided into two main parts. In the ﬁrst, Ciddi analyzes the formative years of social democracy, beginning from the last years of the Ottoman Empire. According to Ciddi, although there were several different socialist organizations, including the Thessaloniki Workers Federation and the International Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, due to the existence and growth of competing nationalisms among different ethnic groups, these leftist movements only became apparent following the October 1917 revolution in Russia. During Turkey’s war of independence, the Ankara government received a substantial amount of economic, technical and diplomatic aid from the new USSR and formed friendly relations with that new state. However, after the founding of the Turkish Republic, the Kemalist regime prevented the development of leftist movements within Turkey. For the founding fathers of the republic, socialism represented an alternative to their ideal political regime and a challenge to the construction of the “good society” they had in mind. Ciddi argues that instead of socialist and leftist politics, “the nationalist-secular and étatist-populist model was conceived and disseminated” (p. 28), and it continued for most of the years during the single-party period.
For Ciddi, the end of World War II was a turning point for leftist politics in Turkey. The liberalizing tendencies within the RPP led to the emergence of a political contender, the Democrat Party (DP). The electoral victory of the DP and the populist and growth-oriented development model of the party paved the way for the emergence of reactionary leftist politics. The 1960 coup and the new constitution, in particular, opened the political space for leftist ideologies and political movements. Just prior to the 1965 elections, the RPP made its ﬁrst attempt to locate itself to the left of center in the political spectrum. Thereafter, between 1961 and 1980, while the RPP was attempting to reﬁne its ideological stance through careful reﬂections on sociopolitical and economic factors, it tried to differentiate itself from other emerging political movements by stressing social justice, anti-communism, a revised version of Kemalism and secularism. The RPP only managed to acquire the electoral payoff of these ideological reconﬁgurations after 1972, especially during Bulent Ecevit’s leadership. However, even after this time, it could not succeed in forming a one-party government, and its electoral successes were not due to a social-democratic program but resulted from the typical political clientelism and patronage. In fact, between 1961 and 1980, the RPP led coalition governments for only six years, mostly with unstable partners. According to Ciddi, there are several reasons for this electoral failure. First, the campaigns of the RPP produced a negative image among a large section of the electorate, especially concerning land reform. Secondly, the “left of the center” slogan was constantly ridiculed by the center-right parties for being at odds with Kemalist principles and for coming close to the political ideology of Moscow. A ﬁnal reason for the unsuccessful electoral record of the RPP had to do with its elitist identity and its failure to provide solutions to economic and social problems.
In the ﬁnal section of this part, Ciddi analyzes the consequences of the 1980 military coup for leftist politics in Turkey. According to him, the coup totally dismantled the political structure within Turkey. Along with all political parties, organizations and unions, the military junta also banned the RPP and other leftist organizations. For the military leadership, the leftist organizations were major culprits in the anarchic disorder and civil war of the late 1970s. In order to prevent the emergence of a similar form of chaos, the junta crafted a new constitution that made it very difﬁcult for leftist organizations and political parties to survive in the political arena. In a subsequent election, Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party got more than 40 percent of the vote and formed a single-party government. Meanwhile, members of the RPP leadership were politically banned, while others were in disarray. According to Ciddi, Ozal’s policies presented “a new and electorally attractive alternative for Turkey’s voters, which social democrats found very hard to overcome.” The Motherland Party succeeded where previous parties had failed. They succeeded “in providing an inﬁnitely more attractive political platform typiﬁed by getting things done rather than remaining stuck on slogans” (p. 8). But Ciddi also adds that the multiplicity of leftist parties that were formed after the coup and the personal feuds and confrontations among the former members of the RPP were other causes of this failure.
The second part of the book involves the situation of the leftist and social democratic parties after the Cold War. Throughout the 1990s, the RPP, led by Deniz Baykal, and the Democratic Left Party (DLP), founded by Ecevit, were in constant struggle to appeal to the left-of-center electorate. Most of the time in the elections of these years, however, the leftist parties lost votes. According to Ciddi, the failure of the RPP and DLP in post-Cold War Turkey can be attributed to several causes. On the one hand, two determinants of Turkish society during these years were religiosity and ethnicity, but both the RPP and DLP failed to respond accordingly with party programs and government performance. Instead, the RPP especially continued to consider these traits irrational and backward and preferred to advocate ultra-secularism and ultra-nationalism. On the other hand, the corporatist traditions of these parties prevented them from following a social-democratic platform. They continued to ignore the increasingly polyarchical traits of Turkish society.
Ciddi also suggests that the leftist parties in Turkey, especially the RPP, have become disconnected from certain segments of society and have even lost touch with traditional leftist voting blocs. In this part of the book, Ciddi analyzes three different groups of voters and their relations with the RPP: the Alevis, trade unions and dwellers. According to his analysis, the Alevi population within Turkey still associates themselves with the RPP, not because the RPP is the best defender of their rights but mainly because of the lack of an alternative. He also argues that trade unions have very weak relationships with the RPP today; its leadership has become a defender of the state and its rights instead of a defender of the working class. Finally, Ciddi examines the electoral results from the largest cities in Turkey, including Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, and contends that the RPP was unsuccessful among the urban dwellers, especially among those who live in the shantytowns. For him, “The ability of political parties in Turkey to adapt and represent diverse interests has been achieved by Turkey’s ‘peripheral’ line of parties challenging the status quo (parties descended from the DP lineage” (p. 115). This is totally at odds with the electoral record of the RPP during the 1970s, when it managed to acquire the support of urban dwellers in big cities. In addition, the situation of the RPP also contrasts with Western political-party structures, in which leftist parties manage to bring together diverse interests to gain electoral success. In fact, Ciddi argues that, in Turkey, it is the peripheral parties, including the Motherland Party and the JDP, that have maintained adaptability between their ideology and the main determinants of voting, whereas center-left parties have kept their rigid ideological loyalties and structures. The RPP leadership has continued to program its political agenda and criticize the government in terms of its allegiance to Kemalist ideology. Thus, it has alienated itself from other demands of Turkish society.
Ciddi’s book provides an informative and moving account of social democratic politics and the RPP in recent history. It also tries to explain the failure of the social democratic political parties both in electoral politics and when they have led coalition governments. At a time when there is a growing interest in Turkish politics and the JDP government, such a contribution helps researchers to extend the scope of their studies to include oppositional politics in general and social democratic parties in particular. Ciddi’s study demonstrates that the success of the JDP and the centre right parties in Turkish politics is not only a result of the organizational power and ideological pragmatism of these parties, but also has something to do with the inability of the social democratic parties in Turkey to reconﬁgure their programs and to appeal to the ordinary people in Turkish society. The RPP and the DLP have always preserved their rigid and elitist ideology, and they cannot rescue themselves from the elitist and etatist modernist outlook. Ciddi presents a number of important questions in his book, some that he responds to and others for future research. The recent election in Turkey has proven some of Ciddi’s arguments regarding the RPP. In this election, the RPP left its secularism-centered criticisms towards the ruling JDP and preferred to follow a pragmatic path by focusing on corruption, unemployment and the economic crisis, which brought a 2.5% increase compared to the 2007 general elections. After this book, which can be the ﬁrst step to analyzing the RPP and social democracy in Turkey, more comprehensive studies are needed to understand the failure of the party in Anatolia and perhaps to offer policy recommendations to the RPP leadership for success in electoral politics and in governance. Such recommendations might help them to rescue themselves from the existing political congestion and help them appeal to diverse groups of voters.