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Social democracy and the Turkish left : a new possibility ?

Tuesday 16 September 2008, by Evren Tok

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) is a well-known economic historian and anthropologist of Hungarian descent, the author of the “Great Transformation,” and also one of the key figures who have had significant influence on the evolution of European social democracy.

Polanyi’s contribution to the European tradition of social democracy mostly stems from his nuanced understanding of “freedom in a complex society.” Polanyi’s understanding refers to accepting the reality of society to remove injustice and lack of freedom. The task, according to Polanyi, is to create more abundant freedom for all, without fear. This is the meaning of freedom in a complex society from his perspective; it provides certainty that the society needs (”Great Transformation,” p. 268). I believe that Polanyi’s perspective could provoke new debates and motivations for the Turkish left in order for it to become more self-reflexive, especially in relation to the possibility of social democracy in Turkey. In other words, Polanyi’s vision and the meaning he attached to freedom in a complex society could guide the Turkish left in many ways. The failure of the left could be approached first by contextualizing the ascendance of social democracy in Europe and the Turkish left’s inability to utilize it, and secondly by pointing out the highly fragmented nature of the left, which prevents them from reaching the public and connecting with the global left.

The road to today’s impasse for the Turkish left

The ascendance of Third Way social democratic parties in Europe, such as New Labour under the Blair government, Zapatero’s Socialist Party in Spain and the Social Democrat Party under Schroeder in Germany all pointed out that social democrats could achieve electoral success through strategies such as balancing the market forces with societal priorities, prioritizing both recognition and redistribution and also being extremely sensitive to issues such as poverty, inequality and social justice. Since 1980, but more intensively during the course of the 1990s, the emergence of new societal actors with new societal demands have been played out in Turkey, which in turn opened the door for further democratization efforts and voiced claims for recognition and participation. In Turkey, however, the left has been quite passive and disoriented in terms of capitalizing on the domestic dynamics, which had very prominent counterparts abroad. It is also quite controversial that this societal reshuffling took place in a context in which the leftist- oriented political parties, especially the Republican People’s Party (CHP), have been totally detached from societal reflexes. In this conjuncture, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), starting from the 2002 elections, emerged as a party offering a social democratic alternative, as opposed to the CHP, which remained, and can even be said to have become more, nationalist/state centric. This debate was caricatured as Turkey’s late, or in other words, “delayed,” encounter with the global Third Way politics.

The recent discussions within leftist circles successfully denounced the deeply fragmented nature of the left in Turkey. In a way, these discussions were portraying the historical opportunity that was ruined at the beginning of the new millennium. Today, one of the central debates is centered around the leftist stance and positioning toward the Ergenekon case. The number of labels circulating within the left-oriented press is numerous, running the spectrum from positivist vs. non-positivist leftists, Kemalist vs. non-Kemalist leftists, and liberal leftists vs. non-liberal leftists, etc. Perhaps, these discussions gained momentum particularly after Sungur Savran’s proposal to bring Marxist analysis to the table.

On the one hand, these discussions were necessary in order for the left to be more self-reflexive and recognize the history of the way in which different fragments within the left have come into existence. The internal squaring ups within the left, especially with respect to the debates on Ergenekon, made it clear that the current leftist critique in Turkey equates “getting more civilian” to democratization. In a way the former is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one for the consolidation of democracy. Furthermore, the same sets of discussions were mute regarding the issue of Third Way social democracy and its importance in Turkey. The introverted and futile discussions within the Turkish left prevented them from finding institutional correspondence in the Western left.

Turkish left and the meaning of freedom

The post 2002 period has shown that unlike European-style social democratic parties, which have put emphasis on restructuring/redesigning welfare states, balancing out recognition and redistribution and aiming for freedom in a complex society, Turkish social democrats have not been successful in getting such debates even onto the agenda. Now, it is the task of the Turkish left to establish a road map to move out of the impasse. Turkey’s delayed encounter with Third Way social democracy could be better instituted if the Turkish left helps build a road map that would accelerate the pace of democracy, promote participatory democracy and redraw the boundaries between the state and civil society. Indeed, providing effective and democratic regulation of the market and more emphasis on issues such as social justice, inequality and poverty should be the priority.

The Turkish left has more responsibility than ever to prescribe a social democratic alternative that recognizes the multiplicity of societal actors, state and non-state institutions, diverging interests and global ideas that reign over Turkish democracy. From Polanyi’s perspective, the apathy of the left toward society and societal privileges is a big obstacle to reaching freedom in a complex society. Hence, being extraverted and connecting with the public, societal concerns, as well as the global left, and providing more certainty than ambiguity are essential for the Turkish left in looking for the true significance of freedom in a complex society. Currently, the clouds over the Turkish left lead us to be more pessimistic as the left does not exhibit much political will for the sake of attaining freedom in a complex society.

- Evren Tok is a Ph.D. candidate at Carleton University, School of Public Policy and Administration.

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Source : 14 September 2008, Sunday TZ

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