A century into Ataturk's republic, Turks are charting a path into the unknown

There’s been much talk of a post-post-Kemalist era, with Turks moving away from AKP conservatism and strongman politics

People hold Turkish flags as they pay tribute to Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, at Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul, Turkey, on November 10, 2021. AP
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Riding an evening train out of Kyiv late last week, I got the feeling I wasn’t headed towards a specific destination, but simply moving away from something – most likely the bombs and dive-bombing drones, the blackouts and waterless days that had come to define life in the Ukrainian capital.

This got me thinking of Turkey’s political scene and where it might be headed, as inflation continues to hit record highs with a potentially game-changing election looming next spring. Last week, days after the Turkish Republic kicked off its 100th year, the governing AKP marked two decades in power.

“The longer a democratic regime survives, the less likely it is to collapse,” Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, wrote in a 2009 book. “The longer an autocracy survives, the more likely it will collapse.”

For much of its history, Turkey’s leaders have seemed to mock this assertion by balancing on the line separating these labels. The country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is a figure whose legacy seems to grow more impressive and more problematic with each passing year.

A person with a flag bearing the image of Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, at the Anitkabir Mausoleum, to mark his 83rd death anniversary, in Ankara on November 10, 2021. AFP

He is firmly established as a singular moderniser in the Middle East, bringing a relatively stable democracy and a dash of secularism to a region that has seen little of either over the past century. Ataturk also compares favourably to European leaders of his era.

Consider that last week marked the centennial of Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome, soon after which he became Italy’s leader and forged a fascist totalitarian state. Inspired by the Italian success, Adolf Hitler launched his famed Munich Beer Hall Putsch the next year. That coup failed, but it made his name and by the end of the next decade, the two were plotting to conquer all of Europe – and nearly did just that.

Turkish society is probably too polarised to achieve a lasting consensus anytime soon

That Ataturk achieved all he did in Turkey in this same period places him among the handful of great 20th-century leaders. Thursday marks his 84th death anniversary, which will again offer Turks the opportunity to express their abiding pride and admiration in their own inimitable way.

Some months after I moved to Turkey, back in 2013, I was walking along the Bosporus near the fairytale edifice of Dolmabahce Palace when passing cars began rolling to a stop, one after another. Pedestrians also froze as the drivers opened their doors, stepped out of their vehicles and stood stock still. I paused and looked around, dumbfounded and unsettled. Had there been an alien invasion, or a major nuclear attack? Was this the most well co-ordinated flash mob of all time? Then I recalled reading about this annual commemoration.

People stand by their vehicles to pay their respects at 09:05 am, the time of death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, on November 10, 2021, in Istanbul, at the 15 July Martyrs Bridge. AFP

A few put their hands over their hearts, but most of the Turks observing this moment of silent remembrance on that Istanbul avenue during morning rush-hour kept their arms at their sides and stood still for a full minute before, all at once, continuing on with their day. It felt like something out of the Twilight Zone, or a more innocent age, and remains to this day the most stirring show of national respect I’ve ever witnessed.

Yet, Ataturk was no saint. Some charge him with failing to halt or curb the Armenian genocide, and in a recent column I wondered if he viewed Arabs as inferior. His 15-year reign is widely seen as a period of autocratic rule. When Turkey held elections a dozen years after the state’s founding, only one party, Ataturk’s CHP, was on the ballot.

Many of his policy decisions – doing away with the Arabic script, banning the fez, ending the caliphate, restricting Islamic observances – were made by fiat. And it’s easy to draw a line from Ataturk’s crackdown on Islamic influence on public life to the birth and subsequent dominance of the AKP.

Men play cards at Yashar Hoca’s Place, in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's old Istanbul neighborhood, Kasimpasha, surrounded by photos of Mr Erdogan and other Justice and Development Party (AKP) politicians. Piotr Zalewski for The National

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 partially in response to the end of the caliphate. The National Vision party of Necmettin Erbakan, essentially a Turkish chapter of the Brotherhood, mentored the AKP’s founders, who in turn nurtured the grievances of conservative Turks marginalised by Kemalism.

In creating his secular democracy, Ataturk believed he had to align with the military and put Islam in a box; a few generations later, this led to blowback in the form of the AKP. Are Turks now set to chart a new path?

Turkey watchers generally saw the AKP’s emergence and ending of military tutelage as marking a post-Kemalist period. In recent years, there’s been much talk of a post-post-Kemalist era, with Turks moving away from AKP conservatism and strongman politics and towards something else.

Perhaps we’ll start to see a synthesis, as the competing ideologies cross-pollinate. Last month, Kemal Kilicdaroglu – the head of Ataturk’s old party, the main opposition CHP, and the likeliest challenger to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – suggested a new law enshrining women’s right to wear the headscarf in public.

Alternatively, the coming decades in Turkey might echo the Democrat-Republican pendulum swings the US presidency has seen since the early 1990s. Turkish society is probably too polarised to achieve a lasting consensus anytime soon. Success might simply be a string of somewhat free and fair elections, relative stability and a degree of political pluralism.

Seeking stability myself, I settled on Budapest as my first port of call after leaving Ukraine. After a late-night arrival I awoke to dark smoke, charred debris, bombed-out vehicles and fire-damaged buildings. As fate would have it, Kate Winslet and a vast crew were shooting a major Hollywood film about a heroic Second World War photojournalist just outside my window.

Someday soon, Turks might also learn that going someplace new doesn’t always change the scenery as much as one might hope.

Published: November 09, 2022, 4:00 AM