Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Survey of Civil Society in Turkey

Substantial food for thought this early in the morning. . .


The function of civil society and the role of civil society organizations have become popular and a focal point of public opinion with recent developments that have occupied Turkey's daily agenda.

In our country, where issues pertinent to the future of the country may become secondary to the daily discussions, it is essential to clarify the notion of "civil society" and the relations surrounding this notion, which serves as an analytical tool to explain the operation of the political system. Such an attempt is necessary to seek long-term solutions to long-standing problems of the country without taking popular political considerations into account.
Just as in other critical periods, a platform formed by professional groups and unions including the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB), the Turkish Union of Agricultural Chambers (TZOB), the Turkish Tradesmen's and Artisans' Confederation (TESK), the Turkish Confederation of Employers' Unions (TİSK), the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions (Türk-İş), the Confederation of Turkish Real Trade Unions (Hak-İş) and the Turkish Public Workers' Labor Union (Kamu-Sen) has attempted to assume an active role in this critical political climate by making a call for reason in consideration of recent political tension in connection with some sensitive issues between the administration, opposition parties and judicial institutions, including a closure case and an anticipated constitutional change. The discussions on the content of the call for reason and calm by these institutions and organizations, which stressed that they represent 80 percent of society considering the broadness of their social base and the speculation on this particular matter, do not go beyond political polemics. However, the developments refer to important clues on some basic problematic fields in relation to the operation of the political structures and mechanisms and political theory, including the foundation of civil society, democratic representation, political participation and civil society-state relations.

Concept and definition

The concept of civil society, which has long existed in the Western world as one of the dynamic forces in the political and social development in democratic societies and as a fundamental concept in the political science literature, is defined as the force that ensures detachment from the central authority and formation of an autonomous sphere, creating a separate structure from the state which can survive independently of any external factors.

Considering that the notion of civil society always refers to the existence outside of the sphere of the state, three particular characteristics may be cited as the necessary preconditions for an organization to be defined as a civil society organization: independence from the state, reliance on voluntary action and focus on social benefit and public interest.

Erosion of the nation-state's borders and sovereignty because of the impacts of globalization in the late 20th century, a weakening of social democracy and a rise of liberalism have led to a redefinition of the concept of civil society that has become more popular in the new era; in the new era, new developments took place to change the operation and structure of civil society organizations and reorganize their relations with the state. They have also become more pluralistic and active in regards to political participation.

Turkey's civil society profile

In Turkey, civil society organizations have been perceived as actors that will undermine the organic integrity of the society and pose a threat to the very existence and unity of the state because of their different approaches and discourses rather than institutions that will make contributions to social integrity and democratization owing to their roles to increase political participation and represent different tendencies and worldviews. In a social and political process interrupted by military coups almost every 10 years, it is not hard to understand this pessimistic and skeptical approach toward civil society.

The nature of the civil society-state relations does not refer to a structure where one develops despite the existence of the other and expresses oneself because the social and political system is based on such a process of development in Turkey. In such a system, the state stands before us as an actor that has existed for a long time as a given category, that holds absolute power, that grants the entitlement to exist and that creates the civil society when necessary and controls it rather than as a structure that is shaped based on the authorizations and powers stemming from the popular base in a politically competitive environment where the civil society dynamics and participation mechanisms of the society also take place.All this aside, in our country where the concepts and institutions with universally accepted definitions and connotations are stripped of these meanings and distorted, the notion of civil society organization appears before us with a different meaning and content pretty far from the real definition.

According to Interior Ministry data, 78,000 associations are currently active in Turkey. When compared to the entire population of the country, it becomes clear that there is one association per 900 individuals. The total number of members in these associations inclusive of repeated memberships in different organizations is around 7.5 million. This means that about 10 percent of the total population participates in the civil society segment through organized activities sponsored by these associations. These figures are far lower than the figures in Western countries. For instance, Denmark, with a population of 5.5 million, the total number of members in associations is 18 million. In Turkey, 10 people are members of one association while in Denmark, one person is a member of three associations. In this case, when we make a basic comparison, it could be said that the level of assembly and organization is very high in Denmark, which is a European Union member. The insufficient appearance and operation of organizations based on volunteering like associations, foundations and think tanks supports the idea that there is no civil society in the real sense in Turkey. When references are made to civil society and civil society organizations, professional organizations and unions rather than associations and foundations usually come to mind; this shows the misperception in regard to the conceptual framework of the notion of civil society.

Considering that there has never been a civil society phenomenon in Turkey in the Western sense, where should we place professional organizations and unions which contribute to political developments and daily activities on the political stage?

Quasi-official civil society organizations

Professional organizations are not regarded as true civil society organizations because of their organizational structure and operation. Their statute within the administrative system of Turkey is defined as a "professional organization in the form of a public institution." To this end, professional institutions such as the TOBB and the TZOB -- each one having been established by a specific law -- seek to protect the interests of their members. Above all, because entrepreneurs eager to be active in their respective fields have to become members of such organizations, this type of assemblage is not based on volunteering, which constitutes the backbone of civil society organizations.

Even though decision-making bodies are elected, their foundation by law and obligatory membership structure prevents professional organizations from being included in the category of civil society organizations. For this reason, the EU excludes them from the list of civil society organizations. They should most probably be called pressure or interest groups because of their basic characteristics and functions.

Their exclusion from the organic structure and hierarchical umbrella of the state is nothing but a formality. In this case, there is no doubt that even though they remain outside of the operation of the state functions -- legislation, execution and judiciary -- the said institutions are under the authority and control of the coercive power and will that ensures the state's existence. From a different perspective, it could be said that they are the natural extension of the state will and public organization.

Whether unions are civil society organizations is also debatable. With the advent of globalization, it has become evident that unionizing in the industrial era was seriously eroded as a consequence of the transformative impacts that have changed the approaches and understandings in the fields of labor and production, the definition of the labor force and its composition as well as the scope of employer-employee relations.Because the labor force has become heterogeneous, there is growing need for an experienced labor force to meet the production demands based on information technology.

Business enterprises have changed their organizational and production approaches to become more responsive to customer demands and changing circumstances on the global stage; collective bargaining and unions compatible with the massive production logic of industrial period has been weakened. Undoubtedly, unions which were weakened in Turkey and the world now seek another type of unionizing, one based on the public sector and integration with the state for the sake of survival.

Does legal representation mean civilian representation?

Should we accept that unions and professional organizations represent 80 percent of the society, considering that professional institutions operate on behalf of the producers and entrepreneurs who have to be members of these institutions under the relevant laws and that unions seek to protect the labor force and their interests relying on the broad employment base and integrating with the public sector and the state? Of course, we should not.

Because their relations with their constituents and the labor force that they represent are limited to a level of protecting the professional or material gains or interests, it is not possible to assert that they reflect the plurality of the society by becoming responsive to the general issues of the country. Therefore, these institutions may be labeled as quasi-official organizations because they represent their members and constituents in a limited way.


Because Turkey's democratic experience is relatively new and flawed, the civil society has failed to flourish in our country; as a consequence, civil society organizations have remained small in quantity and relatively weak in their activities.

Turkey's record of fundamental rights and freedoms is not very good. In a Freedom House ranking, which ranks countries starting from most free to least free using grades from one through seven, Turkey was placed in the partially free countries with three and a half points in 2006. In this ranking, criteria including freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the right to education, the right to enjoying religious freedoms, the level of assemblage and the development of pluralism have been used to identify the basic characteristics of a civil society.

It is difficult to respond to whether there is democratic assemblage that will represent the civilian and political reflexes of the society, its expectations and demands of various issues with the exception of political parties. Unfortunately, there is little chance for Turkey to catch up in the future as long as it fails to resolve its problems relying on a civilian discussion tradition based on civil society organizations and mechanisms in addition to official organizations.

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