Fırat Kimya

Fırat Kimya

Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science, Swarthmore College

Book Project

Repression, Party Formation, and Democratic Consolidation


One of the major challenges to contemporary democracies is the kind of democratic backsliding led by elected executives who seek to undermine electoral and legal constraints on their power. Research on democratic backsliding typically focuses on the most recent causes such as the rise of populist leaders and far-right parties. My project takes a different approach and examines the role that the historical development of political parties plays in preventing or facilitating backsliding. The literature shows that institutionalized parties create barriers to democratic backsliding by fostering political participation, maintaining stable membership, and generating policy-oriented linkages with voters. However, such parties are not built overnight. We must consult the historical record to understand them. This project investigates the turbulent history of democratic transitions and consolidation outside the advanced industrial democracies of Europe and North America by focusing on the obstacles to party formation and institutionalization over the long term.

Often, scholars of party politics focus on specific types of party-building activities such as recruitment of members from home constituencies, territorial expansion through branches, and organization of electoral campaigns. However, when the opposition faces political repression, such as exile, spying, and censorship, it allocates fewer resources to party-building and concentrates more on defensive strategies such as secret recruitment, the formation of underground cells, and operating in exile. This project hypothesizes that defensive strategies are likely to impede the formation of the mass-mobilizing party machinery and reduce the chances for democratic consolidation in the long run.

This project presents a study of party formation and the long-term determinants of unconsolidated democracy in Turkey, beginning in the mid-19th century with the earliest opposition movements. It theorizes that Turkey’s chronic regime instability results from the repressive institutional legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Specifically, it argues that the conditions surrounding the initial growth of the opposition determine whether countries enter the path of sustainable party-building or the cycle of regime instability. The project analyzes the party-building activities of the Young Turks (1889-1918) who established the first organized opposition in the Ottoman Empire, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). It investigates how repression forced the CUP to allocate fewer resources to party-building and concentrate more on defensive strategies. By doing so, this project makes a novel theoretical contribution to the party politics literature by developing the concept of ‘defensive party.’ Additionally, this project investigates how the early 20th century defensive party-building became a critical juncture that generated long-lasting regime trajectories by substantially influencing the Young Turk successors, the Kemalists, who established a single-party rule during the interwar era.

This project adopts an empirical strategy that is multi-method in nature, drawing on the strengths of archival research and statistical analysis. It uses a historically minded within-case analysis through process tracing. In analyzing the impact of repression on the party formation, it relies on archival documents on repression (espionage reports, censorship decisions, and exile decrees between). Furthermore, the project will create an original dataset on the political parties in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey starting with the CUP, Republican People’s Party, and Democrat Party to shed light on their organizational features.