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'Authoritarian Democracy' and the late Ottoman Empire: State, Power, and Civil Society in the Second Constitutional Period

The Historicity of Democracy Seminar with Erol Ülker (Işık University, Istanbul)


My paper aims to discuss the political and ideological character of the single-party rule that prevailed in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. I address this topic by focusing on the formation of a corporatist movement in the Second Constitutional Period (1908-1918). The foundations of this movement were laid after the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, when a large number of associations, trade unions, and cooperatives were established in the Empire. A political circle associated with the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the driving force of the Revolution of 1908, benefited from this unprecedented expansion in Ottoman civil society. This circle developed strong political and economic ties with artisan and labor organizations, and formulated a corporatist political programme, Representation of Professions (Temsil-i Meslekî), which proposed the restructuring of political and economic life based on corporations representing major occupational groups. After briefly referring to the conditions that led to the rise of the corporatist movement within the CUP, I discuss how it was integrated into the Unionist single-party rule. Drawing on a comparative perspective and the existing literature on the subject, I suggest to characterize this regime as an authoritarian democracy. I argue that in the Ottoman Empire the corporatist movement in question grew strong enough to control key political and economic sectors of the state during much of the First World War period, but was never strong enough to seize absolute power. It coexisted and competed with different power blocs under formal democratic procedures.

Erol Ülker is assistant professor of international relations at the faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences of Işik University in Istanbul and a former EUME fellow 2015/2016 at Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. He published extensively on the question of power, representation and political organisations during the late-Ottoman and early republican periods. Among his latest articles: “Anti-Imperialism and Kemalism in Turkey’s Long Sixties“and “The Political Incorporation of Labor in Turkey” (with F. Apaydin).

This event is part of the lecture series:
Lecture series in the academic year 2021/22
The Historicity of Democracy Seminar