Change the Political Parties Act, not Kılıçdaroğlu!

President Erdoğan has again attacked opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu, saying “you are stuck to your seat, and are not getting up!” In a sense, this sentence can easily be generalised to all politicians throughout history: because political party leaders regard their electoral victory as a divine gift, they are reluctant to part with their seats to which they are practically glued – save for only a few exceptions!

Political parties may be defined as a bridge, occupied by their leaders, between voters and the State

Political parties are not only responsible for elections and the running of the government, but they also fulfil extremely important functions in democracies by smoothing the way for new things to emerge: development, consolidation, and the combination of ideas regarding state governance.  They force the existence of a consensus and transfer this mutual agreement into policy. In this sense, political parties may be seen as a bridge between voters and the State.

It is for this reason that the ideas and preferences of individuals with respect to policy decisions should be fully and accurately reflected in political parties, thereby paving the path to a more democratic aggregation of political preferences.

However, in quite a lot of academic articles and books published on the issue, it is clearly expressed that in Turkey, the decision-making and management mechanisms of political parties are dominated by oligarchical groups seeing the party as their personal property. The grassroots fail to have influence over the policies and decisions of the party. Instead they are expected, and in extreme cases forced, to blindly support the leader and his close circle. Various stakeholders such as businessmen, religious congregations, electors, delegates and other similar actors become influential in political party management through opaque methods. Moreover, political party management is seized by a leader and a small group around him and is transformed into a private enterprise or the toy of a professional class of politicians. This in turn causes party members to attach themselves to the party line rather than being committed to free thought and to defending right against wrong.[1]

This article will argue that in Turkey both democracy in general and intra-party democracy are lagging behind their contemporaries, and that the largest obstacle facing the emergence of a democracy equivalent to advanced countries is the failure of political parties to adopt truly democratic decision-making methods.[2]

However, despite stakeholders complaining about the current state of affairs, little is actively done to address the issue so much so that the Political Parties Act (PPA) no. 2820, which is at the heart of this problem, has never been amended. Arguably, this hints at satisfaction hidden by a veil of superficial statements calling for greater intra-party democracy.

The lack of intra-party democracy is the underlying cause authoritarianism in parties.

It is first pertinent to highlight that, in Turkey, both political parties and democracy are considered tools by politicians to get in power. Politicians themselves take on all manner of tasks despite their ordinary political tasks, such as finding jobs, appointing people, promotions, business interests and competitive biddings, all of which distracts them from their primary functions. All the above is reliant upon mutual interactions between elites, thereby leading to a degeneration of democracy.

In an environment where politics is seen as battleground for personal interests, and politicians as the foot soldiers, it is impossible for democracy to naturally flourish. Instead, it relies upon individuals that buck the trend and fortunate coincidences.

The uniform political party organization model imposed by the Political Parties Act no. 2820 (PPA) fails to allow the free organisation of individuals and by extension restricts the freedom of society as a whole. The structure imposed also precludes the social willpower to be influential and effective in determining party policies, and it is unsurprising that we see this inertia reflected in policies.

In political parties in which party members are consulted despite the domination of the managerial approach of senior party management, initiatives like questionnaires, tendency surveys, and consultation meetings are found. However, these activities do not aim to formulate decisions by unanimous mutual agreement. Instead, they are used to shed a light on party management with their results and findings. Such findings can influence a party’s policies and decisions only to the extent the party management adopts and accepts them. Otherwise, lower echelons and members of the party are never permitted to be involved in the organization and decision-making mechanisms of the party. However, the most important factor indicating democracy in a political party’s organization is political participation and the degree to which members can engage in it. But in practice the party management directly manages and controls the members, while the members should in fact influence and control the party management. When the arrow of influence is reserved like this, it allows a small group at the centre to exert their influence and effortlessly dominate the periphery, thus forming an oligarchical institution.[3]

In all social groups and political parties, it is natural that there are leaders surrounded by a hard core (skeleton).[4] All human communities and political parties are steered by people who have leadership qualifications, and party members should elect their leaders as a result of a competition between willing candidates who possess such qualifications. Intra-party democracy should provide the background to, and atmosphere required for, this competition. However, in Turkey even those who start off with the most democratic thoughts and truly believe in democracy tend to drift from these views over time. Political party leaders take up lifelong office, save for non-political interventions, and parties cannot develop durable institutions due to leaders’ authoritarianism. Thus, political parties which in fact should be the intellectual centre for democracy instead turn into what is almost the personal property of their founders.

As stated by the author M. Yanık in pages 167-198 of his book, oligarchic forces that act with the intent of protecting and maintaining their domination over the party degenerate and undermine the democratic nature of the party by preventing the formation of a transparent party membership. Restrictions on the acceptance of members creates an environment conducive to the withering of intra-party democracy. Due to the unavailability of a regular and systematic registration system, it is mostly not possible to determine and understand who is a member of a political party and who is not. Even if a certain order is established, it fails to work effectively in practice. Individuals called “masters” of members show up, and collective illegitimate member registrations, termed fake registrations, are organised, and as a result, politics is no longer an activity which involves large masses of people, but rather is monopolised by individuals who deal with the business in a professional manner, thereby clogging up the healthy channels of participation in politics.

That is why the provision of article 68(1) of the Constitution, stating that all citizens have the right to establish political parties and to duly become a member of or resign from political parties as they wish, has so far failed to enable individuals adopting the same views and ideas with a certain political party to become and remain a member of that political party.

Though the intra-party democracy principle has been regulated as a constitutional liability in Turkey, as it has in Germany and Spain in Europe, as noted by Dr Fazıl Sağlam, the multi-step intra-party election system is preventing intra-party democracy and is leading to oligarchy and authoritarianism in political parties. Party headquarters may discharge and remove the elected local party organizations and committees, and thus, the elected representatives may be relieved of duty by non-elected methods. As stated by Yanık on page 169, this power, which should be used only in exceptional cases, is in practice letting the party headquarters disregard and ignore the will of the grassroots through impositions.

As mentioned by Uyanık on page 174, by the amendments made in article 37 of the Political Parties Act no. 2820 in 1986, the nomination method has been left to the discretion of political parties, and this in turn has caused the seizing and control of nomination powers and rights by a narrow junto of the leader and his team members in headquarters. As a result, candidates are determined by the decisions of party leadership, rather than by a direct primary election within the frame of free, equal and secret voting in conjunction with open counting principles which are more democratic and more amenable to justice in representation. In the end, nomination powers and rights are seized and controlled by certain cadres in party headquarters.

In addition, political party congresses may be comprised of only official elections organised perfunctorily, rather than being an arena for the participation of party members to determine party policies and decision-making processes. And in the election of managers, through single and fixed lists of candidates, the secret voting and open counting principle is breached, and as a result competition among candidates for management posts is prevented. The members are forced to pay homage to the leadership and to content themselves with the discretion and preference of the top party management. The application of such methods in all political parties paves the way for the election, not of moderate and agreeable candidates, but only of extremists and militants, which in turn leads to an increase of polarisation in politics and in society as a whole.

All these problems arise out of some very serious causes. These include the use of the delegate system and the multi-staged election system based on delegates, which breach the principle of equal and fair representation of party members thus destroying intra-party democracy. Moreover, irregular and non-transparent party membership registration systems permit the leadership to keep the party members and delegates under strict control.

Dear Mr. President, please correct these problems and defects which are indeed part of your duties and within the bounds of your authority. Make sure that top managements of political parties are formed and changed in a healthy manner, rather than inveighing against Kılıçdaroğlu again and again in a matter which is by all means in your hands to correct.

Dear Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu. Please be demanding and give support to the emergence of leaders and changes of leadership in all political parties that occur in a healthy manner.

[1] M. Yanık p. 100, footnote 79

[2] M. Yanık p. 149

[3] M. Yanık p. 158 – 166

[4] Uyanık, p. 186, footnote 130

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