On coming Sunday Turkish voters go to the polls to elect their president while a special task force works on ceremonies to mark the centenary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923.
But what would the man who founded the republic think of Türkiye today?
The man in question is Mustafa Kemal Pasha, alias Ataturk (Father of the Turks), the charismatic military commander who transformed the truncated remains of the Ottoman Empire into a nation-state aspiring to modernize itself.
At first glance, Ataturk would be proud of what he did. The republic he founded is the oldest in the Muslim world and one of the few that were founded by strongmen outside the West in the 1920s to be still in place. More importantly, Ataturk remains the only iconic figure of his time to be still respected, if no longer revered, by all his compatriots across the political spectrum.
And, yet, the Father may find out that in a number of ways his grandchildren have diverged from the path he had traced for them.
Ataturk’s republic was created around an army that, rising from the ashes of the First World War, cast itself as the guarantor of the new state and the ultimate arbiter of its politics.
Ataturk may also be surprised by the radical ideological changes that his army and republic have experienced in the past quarter of a century. Ataturkism, to coin a sobriquet, tried to reinvent Türkiye’s identity as a modern state claiming Hittite and Celtic roots, distancing itself from the “decadent Orient” and hoping to regain its proper place in the family of European nations.
Ataturk tried to shape that new identity by replacing the Arabic alphabet with a modified version of the Latin one and purging Turkish from Arabic and Persian loan words in favor of words taken from European languages, notably French.
More importantly, Ataturk introduced the concept of secularism, using the French term “laicite”, to end the centuries’ long mixture of religion and politics under the Ottoman caliphs.
His “one nation under one flag” melted a variety of identities, from Armenian and Greek to Arab and Kurdish ones, into the one-size-fits-all concept of Turkitude
(being Turkish) while rejecting chauvinistic aberrations such as pan-Turkism and pan-Turanism.
Today, however, Ataturk may be surprised by the radical ideological changes that his army and republic have experienced in the past quarter of a century
Thanks to a series of brutal reforms by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the army is now cast as the “big mute” observer of Turkish politics.
The new identity that Ataturk tried to create has also been subverted by Erdogan’s reforms. Erdogan has tried to re-inject a large dose of Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood type, into the Turkish identity. At the same time, he has encouraged the expression of sub-identities, some of them, to justify his peddling of Turkish Islam as the broad tent under which all Turks could gather under one flag.
Thus the Kurds, around 15 percent of the population, have been able to discard the identity that Ataturk imposed on them as “Mountain Turks” and claim a bigger role in Turkish politics and culture in their own name.
Ataturk’s laicite has also been upturned. In 1923 it was the state that controlled the mosque through a ministry of religion. Today, at times, the demarcation line between the state and the mosque is too pale to be seen by all.
As far as aspirations to be European are concerned, Türkiye is now farther away from securing a place in the European family of nations than ever. Even under the Ottomans, Türkiye saw itself as a European power, even if lonely as “the sick man of Europe.”
Ataturk may also be dismayed by the return of pan-Turkist and pan-Turanist elements with a chauvinistic discourse that he regarded as repulsive.
Finally, Ataturk is sure to be unhappy about the extent of the corruption that has gangrened large segments of Turkish public life. He may find that the authoritarian style he introduced remains intact but is used in the interest of increasingly narrowing power elites.
Imitating the British wo-party system, Ataturk created two parties: the People’s Republican Party (CHP) to offer a vaguely social-democratic option and the Justice (Adalet) Party) as a conservative voice with a faint Islamist accent. Those parties have morphed into broad coalitions of diverse interest groups seeking a place at the banquet table.
Would Ataturk be surprised if Erdogan won next Sunday? I don’t think so. Erdogan has a solid support base with some 30 percent of the electorate and has been able to coopt or bribe a number of smaller constituencies into voting for him. Since the alleged coup attempt in 2016, he has been working to ensure his domination of Turkish politics by removing as many potential opposition bases as possible.
Erdogan has defanged the military top brass and dismantled the Gulenist network of Islamist clubs and businesses. He has sent 77000 real or imagined opponents to prison for varying lengths of time. He has organized trials for 13,500 prominent figures from all walks of life, purged 2,745 judges and public prosecutors, and imposed early retirement on 36,000 school teachers and 1,755 university chancellors and deans. Overall, Erdogan has fired 100,000 civil servants including 9,000 from the Ministry of Interior which organizes the elections.
More importantly, Erdogan has tightened his party’s control over the media by shutting down 45 daily newspapers, 25 weeklies, 23 radio stations, 16 TV channels, and 29 book publishing companies. His crackdown has also seen the cancellation of 50,000 passports, preventing the holders from leaving the country.
Ataturk served as president of the republic he had created for 15 years during which Türkiye was one of the few countries to escape the tsunami of inflation that had hit Europe, leading to the emergence of Mussolini as effective ruler of Italy, the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the advent of Hitler.
Next Sunday, Ataturk will watch the polls as the Turks face an economic meltdown with inflation-setting records never known in their history.
The “Father” won’t be happy. However, his sole consolation would be that 100 years later, a majority of Turks still see him as a unifying figure at a time the leadership elites of all ideological colors try to divide them.