Historical context: the Tanzimat period
Compared to many other monarchies among its contemporaries, the Ottoman Empire was not particularly late at becoming a constitutional state: the first Ottoman Constitution was promulgated in 1876, roughly 5 years after that of the German Reich, 35 years after that of Belgium, and 18 years prior to that of Japan. This first experiment in representative government, however, was short-lived, starting in 1877 with the assembly and ending in 1878 with the dissolution of the lower chamber, which was followed by 30 years of autocratic rule under Sultan Abdtilhamit II (r. 1876-1909).2
The Ottoman Constitution of 1876 was not the first modern text to lay down certain principles of government: the famous reform Edict of Gülhane, proclaimed in 1839, promised security of life, honor, and property, as well as regular and fair taxation and conscription systems for all Ottoman subjects.3 The document, which promised a long list of reforms, is today considered the starting point of the modernization period known as Tanzimat.4 Its text, however, makes frequent reference to Islamic divine law, the Sharia. The Edict was firmly grounded in a traditional Islamic, premodern understanding of governance, in which inequality before the law was considered normal and subjects, in return for just rule, were obliged to obey their ruler.5 A second reform edict was issued as a result of massive Western diplomatic pressure in 1856. This document, which is known as Reform Edict (Islahat Fermant), no longer mentions the Sharia. Instead, the Sultan declared that “my subjects, who in my sight are all equal, and equally dear to me”6 would be taxed equally and would all be subject to military service (which they would be able to avoid by sending proxies or paying a fee). The text thus implicitly contradicted the conception of Islamic law, in which non-Muslims were considered as protected, yet inferior subjects who were not allowed to bear arms and who had to pay a special head tax, the cizye.7 Apart from introducing the idea of equality, the document also contained a long list of rights and privileges granted to Christian communities, such as that to establish and renovate churches. It thus contained in mice the contradiction between the two modern principles of equality before the law on the one hand and minority rights on the other.
We know today that the Tanzimat reforms, despite and possibly because of their rhetoric of justice and reordering, were accompanied by a strong and increasing sense of injustice among the population.8 Probably the most important reason for this was that the political project promising political equality contrasted sharply and coincided with increasing economic inequality.9 Moreover, the era of reform provided the populace with a new set of concepts that they could use when expressing their grievances, of which there were many.10 To name but a few: those living in the countryside suffered from arbitrary taxation, indebtedness, and rampant banditry, while city dwellers witnessed the twin effects of the Ottoman economy’s integration into world markets: the Ottoman producing sector faltered in the face of cheap European imports, the very goods that the nouveau riche, in violation of traditional sensibilities, were displaying more and more openly.11 Moreover, local conflicts in the provinces, which were usually triggered by economic conflict, came to be framed as inter-religious strife, facilitating interventions of the European Great Powers into Ottoman domestic affairs.12
By far the best-studied current of criticism of all these developments is that voiced by the so-called Young Ottomans, a group of bureaucrats and intellectuals who, from the 1860s onward, used the new medium of the newspaper, first at home and then from their European places of exile, to rally for the promulgation of an Ottoman constitution and the establishment of an Ottoman parliament.13 The introduction of government accountability and public discussion of all matters pertaining to the state, they believed, would finally bring about the security of life, honor, and property that the 1839 Gtilhane Edict had so utterly failed to bring about. They further believed that a parliament, by helping to redress their grievances, would satisfy those Christian populations within the Ottoman realm who were increasingly drawn toward nationalist ideas. The introduction of a constitution and a parliamentary system was, in other words, expected to do nothing short of saving the Ottoman state, and quite instantly so. Like political counselors in earlier Ottoman centuries, the Young Ottomans presented the idea of political consultation not as a new idea but as the reinstatement of an ancient principle of Islamic governance, thus trying to make it palatable to an inherently conservative society in which innovation was not considered a virtue, but rather a threat.14
By the 1860s, several territories that still - if only nominally - belonged to the Ottoman state already had constitutions and representative assemblies. This was true for Serbia (autonomous since 1830, constitutional since 1859), Bulgaria (1879), the Danube Principalities (1859), and Tunisia (I860).15 Representative government was on the rise in those territories that were still under full Ottoman sovereignty as well. On the local level, forms of representation such as councils of elders and headmen in villages, as well as councils of notables and guild leaders in cities, had been around for a long time.16 Over the course of the nineteenth century, these local institutions were reorganized by the central state and complemented by provincial councils. A Sultanic decree issued in 1840 stipulated
Ottoman parliamentary procedure 223 the formation of councils that would have at least some members elected among the population, usually from among the religious leaders and other notables in all provinces and sub-provinces of the empire.17 Moreover, between 1862 and 1865, the Armenians, Orthodox Greeks, and Jews of the empire were allowed to draw up organic laws for their communities, establishing councils that resembled small parliaments insofar as their lay members were elected.18 The Young Ottoman Namik Kemal pointed to these assemblies “as possible models for a chamber of deputies.”19 The provincial law of 1864 foresaw the establishment of elected provincial councils not only in all Ottoman provinces, but also in the district centers, a principle extended to municipal councils in 1870. The implementation in cities and towns, however, appears to have taken some time. Only males had suffrage, and both (male) active and passive voting rights were tied to tax qualifications that excluded the poor. There were quotas for non-Muslims on the councils, who would be elected by their respective communities.20