Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan did something quite symbolic last weekend: He visited the hospitalized ex-general Ergin Saygun, who was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison for a military coup plot against Erdoğan’s own government. Both Saygun, who had undergone a heart operation just hours after the postponing of his sentence, and his family were positively surprised. Many others were puzzled.
However, those who have been watching Erdoğan’s take on Turkey’s controversial “coup cases” would not be so puzzled by this symbolic visit. This is because the powerful prime minister, who for a longtime supported these cases against his lethal enemies, has been expressing second thoughts over the past two years. In this view, the new judicial structure that has boldly pursued would-be juntas in the Turkish military was initially right, but it has gone too far. For example, the arrest of Turkey’s former chief-of-staff, İlker Başbuğ, with whom Erdoğan worked closely, as the “head of a terrorist organization” was unbelievable. The junta-hunt that probably saved Turkish democracy in the past decade had gone to extremes.
I also think like Erdoğan on this matter, and that is why I saw the Saygun visit as good news. I also hope that this will be a turning point towards a reconciliation between Turkey’s old autocratic guards — namely the Kemalists — and the new conservative elites.
Here is why. The Kemalists, who used to dominate the military, the judiciary, the “deep state,” the universities and mainstream media, had a certain vision. Accordingly, the “principles and revolutions of Atatürk” were the highest values for Turkey, and being the guardians of these gave the Kemalists the privilege to rule. The banning of “backward-minded” or “separatist” ideas and parties was their natural right, if not a sacred duty.
This vision also made the Kemalists believe that they were in a zero-sum game: Turkey would either be saved via “Atatürk’s principles,” or it would degenerate into “darkness” and chaos. In other words, they would either continue to dominate Turkey, or Turkey would become a hell for them.
In the past decade, though, the very thing that Kemalists have feared has gradually happened. They lost their dominance in the judiciary, the universities and the media, while the military and the “deep state” has been tamed and defanged. Their nightmare has come true.
However, if Kemalists keep on believing that the nightmare is getting worse, they will always be very defensive, and hope for a great offensive. And we will be trapped in an endless pursuit of the ones who dream of a victorious come back.
Therefore, the right way for conservatives is not to go after the Kemalists relentlessly, but to have a historic reconciliation with them. (As a lesson, remember the post-2003 Iraq: “De-Baathification” did not help, because it only made the Sunnis hostile to the new regime.) For this reconciliation, the Kemalists need to accept that they will not be “first class citizens” anymore at the expense of others. But they should be convinced that they will not become the new outcasts too.
I have been defending this point of view for a long time, arguing that the way forward is not to imprison every coup-craving radical Kemalist, but to disestablish their authoritarian system and refute their ideology. With some inspiration from the Christian motto, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” I would even say, “Love the Kemalists, hate their Kemalism.” I am glad to see that Erdoğan seems to agree.