Last Saturday was Turkey’s “Republic Day,” or the 88th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic. Official celebrations were canceled in respect for those affected by the tragedy of the recent earthquake in Van. Therefore, we were able to see how society itself reacted to Republic Day without any state supervision.
Quite tellingly, most people simply did not care. Even more tellingly, those who cared and took the streets for celebrations were people from the most upscale neighborhoods of the big cities such as Istanbul. Republic Day, apparently, was meaningful for a small segment of the society – the most wealthy and privileged – but not the whole public.
This was no accident, and it tells a lot about the nature of the Turkish Republic. In school, every Turk learns that this nature is all about “the people’s right to govern itself,” but this is not true. The Republic has rather been the vehicle for a particular elite to rule over the rest of society. As this elite put it jokingly in the 1930s, theirs was a regime “for the people, in spite of the people.”
This came about in quite dramatic fashion. The late Ottoman Empire, which preceded the Republic, had evolved into a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and various political parties. The Turkish War of Independence (1919-22) was led by this democratic parliament, which reconvened in Ankara in 1920, when Istanbul was occupied by the British.
When the war ended with victory, different political camps which had been united for the national cause began to differ. There were liberals, conservatives, socialists and secular nationalists. The latter camp was led by Gen. Mustafa Kemal, who was the number-one war hero, but not the only one.
The original sin was committed in the first five years of the Republic, when Mustafa Kemal got rid of all his opponents either by assassination (as done to Ali Şükrü bey), or execution by show trials (as done to Cavit Bey), or party closures and house arrests (as done to Kazım Karabekir). Instead of continuing the democratic process which began in the late Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal and his followers (the Kemalists) silenced all dissenting views and established a republic without democracy.
In other words, the dictatorial republics in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria that masses have opposed since the genesis of the Arab Spring in 2011 was also the initial “Turkish model.” What has made Turkey much luckier than those countries is that its own “spring” – transition from dictatorship to democracy – began as early in 1950. That year, the first free and fair elections in republican history were held, and the winner was the Democrat Party whose motto read: “Enough! The nation has the word!”
Since then, free and fair elections have been regularly held in Turkey, and they were almost always won by the Democrat Party or its successors – the Justice Party of Süleyman Demirel, the Motherland Party of Turgut Özal, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This line represents the center-right tradition in Turkey, which has always been friendlier to religion and the free economy then the ultra-secularist and “statist” Kemalists.
Therefore, it is no accident that all four of the military coups that took place since 1950 overthrew center-right governments and claimed to restore true Kemalist principles. It is also quite telling that the only Turkish prime minister executed by a military junta is Adnan Menderes, the leader of the Democrat Party and an icon of the whole center-right.
All of this should explain why the incumbent AKP can easily sympathize with the anti-Baath protestors in Syria these days, whereas Turkey’s arch-Kemalist main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), finds itself closer to Bashar al-Assad and his fellow thugs. (On Oct. 29 Republic Day itself, a high level delegation from the CHP went to Damascus to express “Turkish-Syrian solidarity” against the “the imperialists.”)
Kemalism, after all, is the Turkish version of Baathism. Hopefully, though, overthrowing the latter will take less than six decades.