AKP using Atatürk in its ‘yes’ campaign

AKP using Atatürk in its ‘yes’ campaign

President Tayyip Erdoğan was asked in a live interview on Habertürk TV on March 27 about German newspaper Bild’s headline in Turkish and German that day. Bild’s headline said, “Atatürk would have said ‘no,’” implying that if the Turkish Republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, were alive today, he would have cast a “no” vote in the April 16 referendum to consolidate all executive powers in presidential hands.

“I don’t see any relation,” Erdoğan said, slamming the Bild headline. “And also, I could say that if Atatürk were alive today, he would have said ‘yes’ because he suffered from the same [duality] problems.”

The answer is interesting because up until recently, Erdoğan did not use the word Atatürk much; when he had to, he frequently used “Ghazi” Mustafa Kemal instead of that, since the Islamist-conservative tradition in Turkey rejects the surname that Atatürk adopted for himself (surnames only appeared in the republican era), which means “Father of the Turks.”

The Islamist-conservative tradition in Turkey has always remained distant to Atatürk, giving him credit for leading the War of Independence against the invaders right after World War I but disagreeing with his move to abolish the caliphate and separate government affairs from religion by adopting a rather hardline version of secular rule. 

With under three weeks left until the polls, surveys carried out by the AK Parti headquarters reportedly show that in big cities, especially in Istanbul where nearly 20 percent of the country’s 80 million people live, the “no” side is doing better, prompting the AK Parti to intriguingly begin relying on Atatürk in its “yes” campaign. 

One of the recent examples of that is a letter sent to millions of young voters by the AK Parti Youth Organization bearing the signature of Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım. Toward the end of the one-page letter, Yıldırım says: “I want you to strive for the target of reaching the levels of contemporary civilizations that Ghazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk highlighted with new enthusiasm and with greater responsibility by saying ‘yes’ to the [constitutional] change on April 16.”

In a way this is good, considering that just two months ago, there was a row in the political sphere when the Education Ministry debated reducing the content about Atatürk in school books.

The need to attract more urban and educated votes to the “yes” campaign is not limited to referencing Atatürk more than before.

For example, President Erdoğan stopped his car in front of a “no” campaign tent – which cannot be compared in numbers with the “yes” campaign tents – where the supporters of the social democratic opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) were delivering leaflets near a metro station not far from Erdoğan’s residence in Istanbul. He spent around 10 minutes inside the tent and apparently got into an argument with the citizens there. It’s reported that the naysayers objected strongly to Erdoğan when he said, “Your leader is lying about the changes,” referring to CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. 

Later in the day when Erdoğan was addressing an impressive crowd in the Black Sea city of Samsun, he related part of the conversation in the tent with his objectors, most of whom were women. “I asked them what they wanted,” Erdoğan said. “They told me that they wanted a modern Turkey. Don’t you have a modern Turkey, here there are schools and bridges... Can you believe that?” Erdoğan said.

It seems that for almost half of Turkey, schools, bridges and hospitals – which are the basic services that a modern state should provide – are not enough to be considered one, since there are even richer non-democratic countries in the world providing these services as well.

But back to the original theme: If references to Atatürk as a symbol of secularism and gender equality have started to appear in the “yes” campaign, it can only mean that it has become a real necessity.