Representation before independence: a Turkish story
Today, April 23, marks the 92nd anniversary of the establishment of the modern Turkish Parliament or Grand National Assembly, known as the “TBMM” or “meclis” in day-to-day Turkish. The legislative body is three years older than the Turkish Republic itself.
It is important to understand this is so, in order to understand both how the Turkish Republic was founded from the ashes of the once mighty Turkish Empire under the Ottoman Dynasty, and the political dynamics of today.
The War of Independence is generally accepted as having started with Mustafa Kemal’s campaign in Eastern Anatolia in mid-1919, following the occupation of the western port of İzmir by the Greek army, supported by the British. On the eastern front the fighting was against the Armenians. On the southern front were the French and Italians. The army was divided and lacking arms, because of the armistice at the end of World War I in 1918.
After meeting with the local (mostly civilian) resistance groups, Kemal and his Defense of Rights group settled in the central Anatolian town of Ankara, a modest trade junction at that time, and started to organize an army. That was late December 1919, and Sultan Vahdettin in Istanbul was quick to reopen the Assembly of Deputies or meclis, which was part of the constitutional monarchy but had been dysfunctional for years, in a move to keep Ankara from becoming a center of attention.
Kemal and friends responded by forming a group in the Istanbul meclis to promote the legitimacy of the fight in Ankara. They failed in this effort, but they did manage to see the National Pact – which would roughly draw the existing borders of Turkey – adopted on Jan. 28, 1920. Two days after the occupation of the then capital, Istanbul, by British-led forces on March 16, the meclis abolished itself. A number of deputies and military commanders fled to Ankara, to join the National Meclis, declared there on April 23, 1920.
Ankara had won its political victory over Istanbul before winning the military one over the occupying armies. The new military was called the “Grand National Assembly Armies,” and was lead by the assembly’s speaker, Mustafa Kemal, who assumed command on the condition that his authority should be given to him by Parliament. That is why Turkish governments have to ask Parliament’s approval to send soldiers abroad even today.
The Meclis Armies first secured the eastern borders with the Soviet Union later that year. Shifting those where they were needed, agreements were signed with the French and Italians the next year and Greeks were pushed back from İzmir again in 1922. Turkey’s independence was recognized by others in an agreement on July 24, 1923, and the new regime was declared a republic on Oct. 29 of the same year, with Ankara as its capital.
So the independence of the new Turkey came after the clarification of the representative body. Turkish leaders preferred to do it the difficult way, and tried to get the approval of the representatives of the people to carry on with what they had already started. Despite all the subsequent ups and downs, the same pattern can still be found in Turkish politics today.