Erdoğan as 12th president and successor to Atatürk

Erdoğan as 12th president and successor to Atatürk

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the 12th president of the Turkish Republic on Aug. 28 with three ceremonies in Ankara.

At first he took the presidential oath in Parliament. There, the representatives of all state institutions were present and paid their respects, with the exception of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputies who walked out, declining to acknowledge Erdoğan’s legitimacy.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan took his oath and left Parliament.

Later in the afternoon, in the Presidential Palace on top of Ankara's Çankaya Hill, Erdoğan took over from his successor Abdullah Gül.

In between, he went to Anıtkabir, to visit the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, through a War of Independence against invading armies amid the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Actually, that stop was not a legal necessity to begin the term in office, but it is a tradition. Atatürk was also the first president of Turkey, who held the post until his death in 1938.

Erdoğan, as a politician coming from a poor family from an old district of Istanbul who made his way up from the streets to the Prime Ministry - and now to become the first popularly elected president of Turkey - has always fought against Kemalist principles throughout his political life.

Kemalism dictates a modernist, Western-oriented system with a clear separation of religion and state. It has been exaggerated by former governments to restrict religious freedoms from time to time.

Erdoğan, meanwhile, graduated from an “imam-hatip,” or Sunni Muslim faith-based secondary school, and considered Kemalism a barrier between the state and the people encouraged by the republican “elites.” These "elites" have always tried to stop the faithful from holding positions in politics and the government.

In the tens of thousands of speeches he has delivered during his political carrier, Erdoğan has refrained from using Atatürk’s name and has always referred to him as “Gazi” (a semi-religious adjective for those who are wounded in war) Mustafa Kemal. That was in order to make a distinction between the hero of the War of Independence and the - in his eyes - authoritarian leader who later adopted the surname Atatürk, meaning “Father of the Turks.”

Atatürk’s mausoleum was even considered by some of Turkey’s Islamists as the shrine of a made up religion.

Such a background gives the words Erdoğan wrote in the memorial book at Atatürk’s mausoleum yesterday an additional value. You can read this “Message to Atatürk” in full in today’s Hürriyet Daily News.

It is written in letter form, addressing the memory of Atatürk, using the mentality of a log-book and summarizing the essence of what he has done to reach this ultimate position and why.

He started the letter by claiming that the bonds between the state and the people had started to weaken right after Atatürk’s death. With that move, Erdoğan was saying he would not discuss any more of what had been done in the Atatürk era.

Erdoğan praised the efforts of Atatürk and his founding fellows in fighting the war and establishing the Republic with the aim of bringing Turkey up to the level of “contemporary civilizations,” a quote from Atatürk. Erdoğan also praised the “spirit” that established the Parliament in 1920 in the middle of the war, three years before the Republic was founded.

Here comes the key point. Since the death of Atatürk, Erdoğan says, it was his presidency to revive that same spirit through the direct popular vote, lifting the blocks between the state and the people. In this way, he skips the time in between as a time passed in search of those origins.

In the end of the message, he wishes Atatürk peace in his rest, as a gesture to make peace with Atatürk’s memory after all these years; like a peace offering from the 12th president to the first.

In a way, Erdoğan is claiming that he is the real successor to Atatürk – his idea of Turkey.

That is a subject open to debate since one of Atatürk’s basic motivations was to make Turkey a part of secular Western civilization, whereas Erdoğan says this can be achieved by highlighting Islamic cultural ties as well.

However, Erdoğan’s letter to Atatürk looks like a manifesto, signaling an adjustment in his ideology.

It will be interesting to see how this will be reflected in the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) policies, now under Ahmet Davutoğlu who succeeds Erdoğan as the new chairman. Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s text may come to be regarded in the future as a historical milestone in his political line, and perhaps in Turkey’s too.