Erbakan’s unintended legacy

Necmettin Erbakan was not the most loved politician in Turkey, but his death on February 27 at the age of 84 will be solemnly marked by many. For many more, it will be a cause for reflection on the state of Turkish democracy and on the substantial evolution of Turkish politics since Erbakan first began ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Necmettin Erbakan was not the most loved politician in Turkey, but his death on February 27 at the age of 84 will be solemnly marked by many. For many more, it will be a cause for reflection on the state of Turkish democracy and on the substantial evolution of Turkish politics since Erbakan first began making political headlines in the 1970s. Turkey has dramatically changed both because of, and in spite of, Erbakan's political legacy. Indeed the state of Turkish politics today is an indirect, and in many ways unintended, result of what Erbakan himself did to the Turkish political system.

An academic and mechanical engineer by background, Erbakan was elected in his early 40s to the Turkish parliament as a representative of the religiously conservative province of Konya.  That same year he published a document describing his political ideology as one of a "national view," which outlined his vision for Turkish industrialization and economic independence.  Notably, he cautioned against deeper ties to Europe, focusing instead on Turkey's proximity to and religious affinities with the Muslim world.  

Necmettin Erbakan was not the most loved politician in Turkey, but his death on February 27 at the age of 84 will be solemnly marked by many. For many more, it will be a cause for reflection on the state of Turkish democracy and on the substantial evolution of Turkish politics since Erbakan first began making political headlines in the 1970s. Turkey has dramatically changed both because of, and in spite of, Erbakan’s political legacy. Indeed the state of Turkish politics today is an indirect, and in many ways unintended, result of what Erbakan himself did to the Turkish political system.

An academic and mechanical engineer by background, Erbakan was elected in his early 40s to the Turkish parliament as a representative of the religiously conservative province of Konya.  That same year he published a document describing his political ideology as one of a "national view," which outlined his vision for Turkish industrialization and economic independence.  Notably, he cautioned against deeper ties to Europe, focusing instead on Turkey’s proximity to and religious affinities with the Muslim world.  

Erbakan led the first Turkish parties that could rightly be called Islamist parties, beginning with the National Order Party and its successor, the National Salvation Party. Despite its small size, the National Salvation Party was an important player in Turkish politics of the 1970s, largely because the fragmented party system gave small parties with coalition potential more power than their electoral returns might suggest. It was in the 1970s that Erbakan’s Islamists got their first experience participating in coalition government, an experience that would foreshadow subsequent government participation in the 1990s.

In the aftermath of Turkey’s dramatic military coup of 1980, Erbakan was banished from political life along with other politicians of the time. When the ban was lifted in 1987, Erbakan returned to politics and headed the Welfare Party, which controlled a number of prominent local municipalities. The party led substantial innovations in Turkish politics in the 1980s and 1990s, proving much more effective at mobilizing grass-roots support and providing local services than either the fragmented, elite-driven center-right or center-left. 

The 1990s saw Erbakan’s Welfare Party vaulted all the way to the top of the Turkish political system after becoming the largest party in the Turkish parliament with slightly more than 20 percent of the total vote. Despite efforts to keep Erbakan out of the top job, he ultimately became Prime Minister in 1996 in coalition with a centrist rival. Erbakan’s year as Prime Minister is not remembered as particularly successful, but was fraught with political missteps and constant pressure from the military and secular parties, who gave him very little room to maneuver. 

A diplomatic effort in the Middle East was widely perceived as a failure at home, and Erbakan’s domestic agenda was largely paralyzed by resistance from both civil society groups and the state.  Perceived complicity in political scandal only compounded the government’s inability to act.  The political box in which he was held ultimately became too painfully restrictive, and he stepped down in the wake of military pressure after only a year in office. Erbakan was formally forced from politics entirely after his Welfare Party was banned by the Constitutional Court for perceived violations of the secular Turkish constitution. 

Among members of his own party, Erbakan was recognized as both a daring champion of widely-held but under-represented views, and as an inflexible and at times autocratic party leader. His organizational genius, on the one hand, attracted a wide range of political talent in the Welfare Party years, allowing many new faces to enter Turkish politics in prominent local positions. Notable among them was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became the mayor of Istanbul for the Welfare Party in 1994, and who currently serves as Turkey’s Prime Minister. On the other hand, Erbakan failed to appreciate the inherent flexibility and potential appeal of Welfare’s message, as well as the importance of supporting the career ambitions of Welfare’s dynamic younger cadre. After Welfare was banned, the new Virtue Party became the forum in which increasing tensions over Erbakan’s leadership and the party’s strategy would play out. 

Erbakan’s formal ban from politics did not prevent his loyalists from directing the affairs of the Virtue Party in line with his wishes. However, challenges from up-and-coming leaders made divisions over the ideological and strategic direction of Erbakan’s party movement increasingly apparent. By the time that the Virtue Party, like its predecessor, was formally banned for violation of Turkish secularism in 2001, internal rifts with Erbakan led to a split in the Islamist party movement. This led to the creation of the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by former Istanbul mayor Erdogan, and the increasing marginalization of Erbakan and his closest associates. Subsequent time in jail did not extinguish Erbakan’s political ambitions, and he led the small Felicity party, a personal vehicle that was dramatically eclipsed by rival AKP after the 2002 elections.  

Erbakan’s time as Prime Minister was marred by controversy and his policy legacy was marginal. Likewise, his final years directing the Felicity party, which holds no seats in the national parliament, demonstrated how isolated he had become, even among the religiously conservative whom he might claim as natural sympathizers. In many ways his direct legacy fell far short of his political aspirations and grand ideology. His legacy is that of a very different Turkey than the one he served as Prime Minister in the 1990s, a Turkey that has largely been reshaped by his original associates, who subsequently became his closest rivals. 

First, Erbakan redefined what it meant to be a political party in Turkey. His understanding of Islam’s social, educational, and service role shaped how he thought about the potential for parties to mobilize citizens. For Erbakan, a party could also play the role of a movement, and a movement could outlast any legal challenges that Erbakan’s parties were to constantly face.  Erbakan’s Welfare Party would go door to door, set up community services, offer local incentives for membership, and work to build and shape communities in ways that his political rivals completely failed to do. Leaders of the fragmented center-right and center-left, by contrast, led parties with weak social roots that often appeared to be much more concerned over petty squabbles of the Istanbul elite than the deep economic challenges and social concerns of Anatolia.

Secondly, Erbakan started Turkish Islamism on a participatory path that would reshape it dramatically over time. Though Islamic sympathies had been expressed by other parties before Erbakan entered Turkish politics, Erbakan was the one who decided what it meant to be an Islamist movement in the Turkish context. Part of what that meant was direct participation in secular politics, including building coalitions with ideological rivals. Erbakan’s willingness to play politics within the context of a strictly secular constitution meant that Turkish Islamists would learn to change their political strategies and behaviors over time, in ways that increased their opportunities for electoral success even at the expense of ideological concessions.  Ironically, while Erbakan was the first to demonstrate this principle, it was his younger rivals in the Justice and Development Party that were to gain from it, even at his expense, as they came to dominate mainstream Turkish politics. 

Third, Erbakan left a Turkey that is much more comfortable with itself and its position between Europe and the Middle East than it was before he came into office. Although his warnings to keep Turkey away from Europe and to resist ties to Israel have largely gone unheeded by all Turkish governments, including the current one, Turkey’s regional role has been considerably strengthened over time. Indeed, Turkey’s rich relationships with its neighbors today have echoes of Erbakan’s original "national view," even if the policies behind Turkey’s foreign relations are much more pragmatic and less ideologically-based than Erbakan could have ever pulled off himself. Turkey has moved from a position of perceived inferiority with Europe to a recognition of its particular strengths, which have substantially increased its influence in the region over time.       

Ultimately, Erbakan could never have created today’s Turkey. He was too polarizing, ideological, and inflexible to lead Turkey through the country’s remarkable challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century. However, today’s Turkey is also unlikely to have been possible without him. Turkey today is both more democratic and more divided because of the legacies that he left, and Turkey’s leaders are indebted to what he taught them about appealing to popular needs and to building social coalitions; his established pattern of political participation and collaboration with rivals also shaped expectations that Islam had a constructive role to play in the Turkish party system. 

Turkish politicians are still struggling, however, with the conflict over Turkey’s religious and regional identity that Erbakan turned into one of the central cleavages of Turkish politics.  Unfortunately, the tensions between Erbakan and his secular and military rivals of the 1990s are still apparent in the brinkmanship of contemporary Turkish politics. His unintended legacy, however, is that the pattern of participation he espoused has led Turkish Islamists over time toward ideological moderation and pragmatism. Although Erbakan remained aloof from his centrist rivals at the end, the Islamists he created are now wedded to the Turkish center, making whatever identity solutions Turkey develops likely to be grounded in democratic processes.

Quinn Mecham is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College and formerly a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.