The readers of this column are probably well aware that I have not been a great fan of Kemalism. For this 80-year-old official ideology and its adherents, the Kemalists, have been quite authoritarian toward the rest of society. They defined an “ideal citizen,” and forced everybody to conform to those narrow standards. They banned the Kurdish language, the Islamic headscarf and Christian institutions. They launched military coups, banned political parties, and even had some innocent people executed. They have been a dangerous crowd.
However, I should admit that as time goes by and a new cadre of Turkish elites assume and enjoy power, I see a need to refine my point of view: The problem is larger than Kemalism. For sure, this ideology has its own specific reasons for being authoritarian — such as its cult of personality and its naïve claims of absolute truth. But it also is a reflection of an authoritarian political culture that pervades Turkish society.
This is becoming more and more apparent, as Turkey’s new elites prove to subscribe to some of the bad habits of the old elites. Both camps, for example, believe in an ideal “unity” that leaves little room for pluralism. For the Kemalists, this unity had to be achieved on the basis of “Republican values,” which were dictated by Atatürk. The new elites, on the other hand, believe in “national values” that are defined by the Ottoman past. (And although I prefer Ottoman values to those of Atatürk, I would be against their imposition by the state.)
Similarly, both the old and the new elites are prone to explaining the world with conspiracy theories. Kemalists used to see the hands of “the enemies within” behind every trouble in Turkey, whereas the new elite is ready to discover “the deep state” under every stone. And both camps believe in innumerous foreign plots.
When it comes to the way they govern, both the old and the new elites are corrupted by similar problems, such as nepotism. Kemalists had structured the state as basically a machine which would be run by, and create benefits for, their own class. As the new elites take over the system, however, they prove that they have a tendency to turn it upside down, making the Kemalists the new outcasts and themselves the new privileged.
Now, none of this means that “nothing has changed in Turkey,” as some absolute pessimists claim. Quite the contrary, in the past decade, the confrontation between the old and the new elites unleashed a progressive energy, thanks to which important liberal reforms were made. The new elites, under the banner of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), had to tame our Leviathan (i.e. the Turkish state), and hence structural improvements took place. The days that Turkey was a country of torture, extrajudicial killings and depopulated villages are long gone.
However, Turkey has not become a heaven of liberal democracy either, as the absolute optimists believe. For the authoritarian mindset which had created older problems is still alive and is creating new problems.
As a nation, what we ultimately need to realize is that our troubles will not end when “good Turks” come to power and use it without restraint. When we have that naïve belief, any group of Turks that come to power will inevitably become dangerous simply out of an iron rule discovered by liberal thinker Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What we really need is to constrain power with liberal principles, and decentralize it with democratic mechanisms.