The concept of political culture can be defined as the sum of assumptions about the political world (David J. Elkins and Richard E. B. Simeon 1979: 127). Assumptions about the political world focus attention on certain features of institutions, events and behavior, define the realm of the possible, identify the problems deemed pertinent, and set the ranges of alternatives among which members of the population make decisions.
It should be stressed that, political culture is the property of a collectivity – nation, region, ethnic community, class, party and so on. Individuals have beliefs, attitudes and values but they do not have cultures. Political culture refers to the system of beliefs about patterns of political interaction and political institutions.
Political culture plays a major role in determining the political phenomena. In this context, it could be stated that, decision-making processes, political institutions and procedures are also heavily dependent on the political culture. Thus, Turkish political culture has a lot to say in order to help us understand its impact upon Turkish political life in general and policy-making processes in particular.
One of the most salient characteristics of Turkish political culture is related to State “Mythos”. In Turkey, even in the field of thoughts, state has a dominant and decisive role, and the roots of that role go back to Ottoman times. The most remarkable element of such a strong state understanding is the emergence of respect and praise for authority. In Western tradition, state is seen as a product of civil society, by contrast, in the Ottoman political system, state is seen as a transcendental and supreme entity.
On the other hand, the process through which the bureaucratic tradition was constituted and developed has always been an obstacle against the strengthening of democracy in Turkey. The bureaucratic tradition has, from the very beginning had an authoritarian character. That bureaucratic structure has been one of the leading factors that paved the way for the production of elitist and tutelary political tendencies in Ottoman-Turkish political history.
Another important dimension of Turkish political culture is the political position that the Army has been holding since the establishment of the Republic. Unlike its counterparts, the Turkish Army has a considerable amount of political and institutional autonomy which ultimately leads to emphasize its role in guarding the state from “internal enemies”. This term of “internal enemy” refers to political Islam and Kurdish movement, and from time to time the military elites exercise direct and / or indirect political authority to a variety of extents.
It must also be underlined that, the historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. In addition to that, along with the military, the high bureaucracy of Turkey until the multi-party politics revealed a certain amount of distrust towards the society.
On the other hand, ultra-secularist understanding in Turkey constitutes another factor that may be seen important in shaping political culture. An important style of secularism is Inonu-style secularism (so named for second president of the republic, (İsmet Inonu). This is more about the elitist protection of Kemalism.
Finally, Turkish political culture’s basic contours such as the superiority of collectivities over individuals, the instrumentalist use of political authority for controlling and manipulating the masses, the political role of the military elites, the relatively weak civil society and strong state tradition all shape the political activities in Turkey.
Through tracing the main elements of Turkish political culture, an observer can also recognize what types of policies are implemented as a reflection of that political culture. For instance, the strong state tradition which implies the existence of a strong state with a relatively weak civil society sheds a light upon the state-led economic policies before 1980s and this used to lead to the emergence of a subject civil society. However for a couple of decades, an autonomous civil society has begun to emerge.
On the other hand, the bureaucratic tradition inherited from the Ottoman times has so far played a major role in the production of elitist procedures. Since 1999, with the official European Union candidacy, these elitist and tutelary tendencies have been eroded in a considerable sense.
Another element of Turkish political culture that is still important in affecting policy-making processes is the nature of civil-military relations. As known, despite some legal regulations still the Army has a privileged position in Turkish political scene. In handling problems such as Kurdish issue, and radical Islamic movements, the political role of the military plays a major role in policy-making processes.
The ultra-secularist understanding in Turkey is another factor that has a significant degree of influence in policy-making processes. The best example about this issue may be the headscarf ban. The state still sees the religious people and symbols as a threat for its secular character despite its antagonism is not as intense as before. In addition to that, the ethnic-related sensibilities of Turkish political culture pave the way for the production of repressive policies against Kurdish people. The laws banning the education in mother tongue may be a good example for these repressive policies.
To make the long story short, it can be stated that, political culture has a considerable degree of influence upon decision-making procedures and policy-making processes. A country characterized by having certain “internal enemies” – which are in fact typical citizens – inevitably get engaged in political activities that are far from democratic principles.
On the other hand, Turkey’s efforts in making its democracy work better since the late 1990s as a result of the interaction of both internal and external forces must not be underestimated. Despite its ultra-secular character and repressive policies against the Kurdish people (it should be noted that these tendencies are not as strict as before), Turkey seems quite enthusiastic in making its political life more democratic.