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The Changing National Elite

Turkey's national political elite is a self-perpetuating group; membership is based on a demonstrated commitment to secularism and the other principles of Atatürk. During the initial years of the republic, the elite was recruited from the Ottoman bureaucracy and military. Its members thus shared a sense that they knew best how to carry out policies that served the interests of the state and country. In addition, most of the early republican elite had been involved with or sympathetic to the pre-World War I Ottoman political parties that had espoused major political and economic reforms. Atatürk himself, for example, had been a member of the Unionist Party while serving as an Ottoman army officer in Macedonia (see The Young Turks, ch. 1). During the 1920s and 1930s, the ruling elite accepted the need for significant, even revolutionary, reforms and generally embraced Atatürk's programs enthusiastically. In effect, service to the country and higher education, rather than wealth per se, became primary qualifications for acceptance into the political elite as early as 1930.

The national political elite essentially ruled Turkey unchallenged for more than thirty years. Beginning in the 1950s, however, the socioeconomic changes resulting from government policies provided numerous and varied opportunities for the accumulation of private capital in finance, commerce, trade, and industry. The emergence of a wealthy business class inevitably led to the development of class-specific political interests and ambitions. Because of this new business elite's experience in entrepreneurial activities rather than the bureaucracy, its members' views differed sharply from those of the established ruling elite, which generally supported state intervention in the economy. Increasing competition between the two elites over appropriate state policies was one of the reasons for the polarization that characterized Turkey's national politics during the 1970s.

A nongovernment professional elite also gradually emerged after 1950, including architects, engineers, lawyers, managers, physicians, and university professors, who were not necessarily unified in their political views. Nevertheless, as a group they tended to resent what they perceived as the patronizing, even authoritarian, political attitudes of the ruling elite. This group's frustration with the political system, emerging at the same time as dissatisfaction within the business elite, highlighted the need for genuine political reform. During the 1970s, some members of the ruling elite recognized this need, but they were unable to enact remedial legislation.

The 1980 military coup symbolized the deep divisions that had emerged within the ruling elite over strategies for dealing with the political demands of diverse and competitive interest groups. The officers and their civilian supporters, who included some factions of the business elite, wanted the state to impose social order through the type of authoritarian methods they believed had worked successfully under Atatürk. They were sufficiently angry with dissenting members of the ruling elite to arrest the most prominent politicians, including two former prime ministers. The coup in effect split the ruling elite into two ideological factions that continue to coexist uneasily in the mid-1990s. One elite group believes in the efficacy of a strong government to maintain social and political stability; the other elite faction believes in accommodating interest group demands that do not threaten the national cohesion of the country and generally supports broadening political pluralism.

Urban Life

By 1995 approximately two-thirds of Turkey's population lived in urban areas, which continued to grow rapidly (see Population Density, Distribution, and Settlement, this ch.). Urbanization and industrialization have helped to create social-class structures that are similar in all large cities (population of more than 100,000) and most smaller ones (population 20,000 to 100,000). Government officials, wealthy businesspeople, and professionals together constitute the urban upper class. The business elite in most cities is very diverse and generally includes industrialists, financiers, large-scale retailers and wholesalers, real estate developers, construction firm owners, transportation company operators, and, in Ankara and Istanbul, owners of commercial publishing and broadcasting companies. The business elite, which constitutes the largest component of the upper class, has been expanding since the early 1980s as a result of government incentives for private investors and entrepreneurs. However, because statistics on personal income in Turkey are neither complete nor reliable, there is no accurate means of determining the composition of the upper class. Political power and education continue to be significant, albeit much less so than before the 1980 coup, as qualifications for upper-class status. The upper class makes up about 10 percent of the total population of all cities.

The urban middle class is larger and more diverse than the upper class. It includes various types of administrators; middle-level bureaucrats and public employees; engineers lacking advanced college degrees; journalists and other writers; managers of industrial enterprises, commercial offices, and social-service centers; owners of small-scale retail establishments and restaurants; technicians; self-employed artisans; professionals; and tradespeople. Education, particularly a college degree, has been key to joining the middle class. Although the middle class was continuing to expand during the early 1980s, most of its members felt threatened by persistently high inflation rates that had eroded their savings and impeded their upward social mobility. In 1995 the middle class was estimated to constitute 20 to 25 percent of the total urban population. It was larger in prosperous cities but smaller in economically depressed areas.

The phenomenal growth of cities since the 1950s has been the result of large-scale migration of lower-class people from the villages; in 1995 more than 60 percent of Turkey's urban population belonged to the lower class. Most villagers who came to the cities in search of work were unable to find affordable housing. Thus, they built temporary shelters on undeveloped land on the outskirts of Ankara and Istanbul and other large cities. These squatter settlements, or gecekondus , soon became permanent neighborhoods, albeit ones that lacked urban amenities such as piped water, electricity, and paved streets. Eventually, some gecekondus were incorporated into the cities and provided with electricity. By 1980 up to 60 percent of the residents of Ankara, Adana, Bursa, Istanbul, and Izmir lived in new gecekondus or in city neighborhoods that had originated as gecekondus . During the 1970s, researchers affiliated with government-funded institutes tried to depict the expanding gecekondus as settlements that facilitated the adaptation of rural migrants to the urban environment. In actuality, all such neighborhoods were urban slums where poverty and its associated social ills remained pervasive in the mid-1990s.

Obtaining work in private manufacturing or state industries is a typical goal of lower-class men because of the steady employment and wages offered. Among industrial workers, there has been a long tradition of group identification and solidarity. By 1975, when more than 79 percent of all industrial workers had been unionized, labor leaders were able to exercise political influence on behalf of legislation protecting workers' rights. This situation changed dramatically following the 1980 coup. The military government forcibly dissolved existing labor unions, arrested prominent labor leaders, and banned strikes. Subsequently, to ensure that unions remained under supervision, the civilian government of Turgut Özal encouraged the formation of tradespeople-artisan guilds. By 1995 these guilds, however, represented only 10 percent of the entire labor force and lacked the political influence of their predecessors (see Human Resources and Trade Unions, ch. 3).

In the prevailing climate of economic and political uncertainty following the coup, several factories ceased production, a situation that meant immediate job and income loss for thousands of workers. Even after the restoration of civilian rule, economic conditions for the lower class did not improve. Up to 25 percent of adult males in the gecekondus were unemployed in the mid-1980s; throughout the first half of the 1990s, the level of industrial unemployment remained at the 10 to 11 percent level. An excess labor supply relative to available industrial jobs has tended to keep wages depressed.

There are more nonindustrial than industrial jobs in the cities, and as many as two-thirds of all lower-class urban families depend on nonindustrial, unskilled work for their livelihood. Such work includes crafts; automotive repair; brick masonry; butchering; carpentry; deliveries; bus and taxi driving; entertainment; equipment operation in bakeries; laundry, machine shop, and dockyard work; home painting and repairs; maintenance of grounds and buildings; personal services in public bathhouses, barbershops, beauty salons, and private homes; operation of small retail shops; service jobs in hotels, institutions, offices, restaurants, and retail establishments; street cleaning and maintenance; street vending of products and services; textile piecework in the home; and various transport and haulage jobs.

Data as of January 1995

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