Academic journal article Hemispheres

Religious Parties and Democratization: The Case of the Welfare Party in Turkey

Academic journal article Hemispheres

Religious Parties and Democratization: The Case of the Welfare Party in Turkey

Article excerpt


Religious/ideological parties change their strategies in order to appeal to a broader electorate when they are faced with electoral failures or a possibility of gaining power.* 1 These parties de-emphasize their religious/ideological character in this process. Since religious mobilization that paves the way for religious party formation is mostly initiated by a religious authority,2 the leaders of religious parties have to disassociate themselves from this religious authority in order to introduce any kind of changes in the party's religious character. In the case of the West European confessional parties, this religious authority was an institution outside the party; the Catholic Church. However, in the religious party in Turkey, the party leadership itself claimed to be the religious authority.3 This created a dilemma for the leadership.

The Welfare Party (WP) changed its strategies in the 1980s and 1990s due to electoral concerns, competitive party politics, and possibility of coming to power. The party adopted new policies, made some organizational changes and altered the campaigning methods in order to reach different social groups other than religious voters. However, the leadership of the WP maintained a religious discourse that limited the extent of change. Even though the leadership was willing to change the party's strategies and policies due to political constraints, it also wanted to maintain its religious authority over the party activists. Within the party, the religious authority of the party leadership was used to minimize intra-party criticism and opposition. Ergun Yildirim4 called this dilemma of the WP leadership as the leadership's "political schizophrenia".

Electoral constraints and strategic changes

The political-institutional context in which the religious parties function affected the strategies of these parties. Existing electoral systems and the position of competing center right parties created electoral concerns that induced the religious party to make changes in a number of areas.

For religious parties, electoral concerns led to two kinds of strategies and these in turn have consequences for the parties' ideology. First, electoral defeats led to strategic moderation. When these parties faced electoral failures, they changed their strategies to attract non-religious voters and de-emphasized their religious rhetoric and identity. As they perceive that their strategy of moderation worked in terms of successful election results, and as the chances of coming to power increased, the party made further changes to attract more voters. Just as the early confessional parties did in Europe,5 when faced with electoral concerns and government prospects, religious parties in Turkey de-emphasized their confessional character.

Secondly, party competition is another external factor that influenced religious parties' strategies. If the center right parties included conservative elements, the religious party followed a differentiation strategy. When the center-right parties excluded these conservative groups the religious party moved to a more conservative center right position to appeal to conservative voters.

The WP leadership and electoral concerns in the 1980s

In the 1970s, Turkey experienced increasing violence between leftist and rightist groups.6 The party system was polarized and short-lived coalition governments could not provide stability in the country. When the military intervened in September 1980, the parliament had failed to elect a president for several months. The military junta accused the political party leaders of the polarization of the party system and banned all pre-1980 parties. The leaders of the parties were banned from politics for ten years.

The WP, the third party of the National View Movement and the successor of the National Salvation Party (NSP), which was closed by the military rulers in 1980, was again founded in July 1983. …

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