The Turkish political system is a secular parliamentary democracy that recognizes the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The executive branch of government includes the president, the prime minister, and the cabinet (council of ministers responsible for a variety of governmental tasks). The president is elected by parliament for a period of 7 years. He serves as the head of state, has broad powers of appointment and supervision, and is non-partisan. The prime minister is the head of the government and is responsible for appointing the cabinet. The Turkish Grand National Assembly (TBMM), or parliament, is the legislative branch of government and consists of 550 elected representatives voted for by the citizens of Turkey. The judicial system consists of a constitutional court, a series of state courts, a council of state, and a high council of judges and prosecutors.
Modern Turkey has suffered several periods of instability and authoritarian rule. When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, Turkey was governed under 1-party rule by the Republican People's Party (CHP) established by Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern republic. This situation lasted until 1945, when the multi-party era commenced. The first change of power took place in 1950 when the Democrat Party won the national elections. They ruled until 1960, when power was seized in a military coup intended to end internal political tensions and growing economic problems. Democracy returned in 1961 as soon as a new constitution was written, but only lasted until 1971 when, after a 3-year period of political strife and resultant domestic violence, another coup was staged, replacing the civilian government with a succession of semi-military, non-partisan governments. In 1973, general elections were held once again in an effort to re-start the democratic process but, by 1980, a military coup was again necessary to restore order and stop political violence that was claiming more than 20 victims daily.
Another new constitution was drafted in 1982. It was approved in a national referendum, and elections were held 1983. The Motherland Party, formed by Turgut Ozal, won an absolute majority, formed a government, and won a second election in 1987, making for 6 years of stable rule until, in 1989, Turgut Ozal left the Motherland Party to become Turkey's new president. Many of the structural and economic reforms that have led to liberal trade policies and reduced the government's role in the economy were initiated during this period in the 1980s. Since then, however, no single party has been able to capture a majority in elections, and the Turkish political scene has witnessed one coalition after another failing in attempts to bring stability back to government.
In the 55 years since the beginning of the multi-party era, Turkey has had 43 governments (in addition to the 14 different governments in the single-party era). In 1999, the country witnessed the fall of yet another government, the establishment of an interim government, and the election of a third. With each government averaging just over 15 months in power, it is not surprising that the country has found it difficult to develop and execute a stable, long-term economic plan. The fundamental problem lies with the fact that there are too many political parties in operation (21 parties participated in the 1999 elections), many of them following similar pro-reform, centrist policies, offering little difference of choice other than between the distinctive personalities of their various leaders.
The last elections were held in April 1999. The Democratic Left Party (DSP), led by Bulent Ecevit, received 22 percent of the votes and won the most seats in parliament. This was not enough to secure a majority and, in June 1999, DSP formed a coalition with the National Action Party (MHP) and the Motherland Party (ANAP). If this coalition proves stable, the next elections will be held in 2004. There are grounds for optimism, since the 3-party coalition has a strong parliamentary majority, and has been aggressive in pushing an ambitious reform program, well supported both domestically and externally.
Of the 21 parties that participated in the 1999 elections, 6 are prominent. Two of these are center-left parties: the Democratic Left Party (DSP), who is the majority partner in the current coalition government, and the Republican People's Party (CHP). Bulent Ecevit, the current prime minister, leads the DSP, a social democratic party with a strong free-market economic agenda. Ecevit has had decades of experience in Turkish politics (he was prime minister 3 times during the 1970s). The CHP tries to carry on the tradition of the party's early days as the first political party in Turkey, but in the last elections it failed to get the 10 percent of the vote necessary to enter parliament. Thus excluded from parliament for the first time in its history, the CHP has embarked on a process of rebuilding itself.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum are 2 center-right parties: the Motherland Party (ANAP), a junior coalition partner in the current government, and the True Path Party (DYP), which holds 85 parliamentary seats. Both are parties of the conservative mass, have similar ideologies (social and political beliefs), and, in common with the center-left, support free trade and growth led by the private sector. However, such slight policy differences as there are have favored ANAP popularity in urban areas, while the DYP has more visibility in smaller towns and villages.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) was the big surprise of the 1999 elections, capturing second place with 18 percent of the national vote and a partnership in the coalition government. It has a strong nationalist agenda, and has been historically connected to right-wing organizations partly responsible for the violence preceding the military coup in 1980. Despite retaining hard-line attitudes on certain issues, the MHP seems, overall, to have softened somewhat. It has strongly supported the economic reforms and has co-operated in maintaining the stability and continuity of the coalition government.
The Virtue Party (FP) is the successor to the Welfare Party, which was in government in 1996-97 but was shut down in 1998 for undermining the principles of Ataturk and secular Turkey. FP has a religious agenda, and rejects the secular principles on which the republic is based in favor of Islam. It won 15 percent of the vote in the 1999 elections, making it the main opposition party to the 3-party coalition government.
In Turkey, the military has traditionally exerted significant pressure on ruling parties, and military intervention in government has been frequent. Since the first coup in 1960, representatives of the army, air force, and navy join the president, the prime minister, several key ministers, and the Chief of the Turkish General Staff on the National Security Council (NSC), an advisory body that oversees the president and the cabinet. At times, the NSC has had a marked effect on the political agenda. The military played a major role in the resignation of the Welfare Party government by publicly supporting a popular opposition movement comprised of businesses, labor, and community groups. The influence of the military (which has closer ties with the center-right parties) seems to have diminished in the new government, although its stance on several sensitive issues is well known to the public.
The Ecevit government restarted structural reform, trying to make up for the time lost during the political uncertainties of the 1990s. In addition to social security reforms, one of the primary tasks of the new government was the reduction of the national deficit through accelerated privatization . A series of legislative measures have been designed to allow for the process to be as smooth as possible. These privatization projects will make Turkish industry more efficient and globally competitive, and will bring increased revenue to the government. The government is also trying to tighten its fiscal discipline by cutting expenditures and tightening up on tax collection. This latter measure is important, since Turkey has a large unregistered economy that could account for an increase in the official GNP by up to 50 percent. Indeed, although Turkey's population has grown by 30 percent over the last 15 years, its taxpayer base has remained static, indicating the seriousness of the problem. If the government can succeed in reducing this un-registered economy, the tax base will broaden and bring some much-needed relief to the country's finances.