Even though Turkey is the only secular, Muslim democratic country that has held free and fair elections for more than half a century, the Turkish electorate has hardly been studied. Sayarı and Esmer thus fill an important gap in this edited volume by explaining how the Turkish electorate actually makes decisions. With research going back to the 1950s and comprehensive data from the 1999 elections, it serves as an important reference book.
The study provides important analysis on the geographic, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic bases of voting. Several authors find that the center-periphery tension going back to the Ottoman Empire was replaced in the 1990s by cleavages between Alevi and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and Turks, and Islamists and secularists. Inclusion of the often-neglected Alevis—who make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population and vote for secular, democratic parties—further brings out the complexity of the Turkish electorate.
In answering the question of why, despite its many elections, Turkey is not a consolidated democracy, the authors point to the repeated military interventions and periodic closings of political parties, and how these steps led to high electoral volatility. As Sayarı states, in "1980, the military engaged in a far more ambitious political engineering project" and banned all the political parties to reestablish a stable, two-party system. As a result, however, party fragmentation worsened, and the center-right gradually lost its support; in the 1990s, it was taken over by "far-right nationalists and Islamists."
Several contributors attribute the change either to protest against the center-right's corrupt, incompetent leadership, or to the overall rise of nationalism and religiosity. A sobering finding by one of the authors, Birol Yeşılada, referring to the Islamists, is that the one political party in Turkey "which has a remarkable track record of successful adaptation to change and voter alignment" is also the one "not fully committed to the survival of the secular, democratic political system in Turkey."
The important findings in this book—despite some repetitive information in the first three chapters—provide insights and data for researchers studying not only Turkish democracy but also the compatibility of Islam and democracy in countries with majority-Muslim populations.