The Turkish Republic’s most critical decade
Today, on Oct. 29, the Turkish Republic is celebrating its 91st birthday.
As the 12th President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has decided not to use the palace on top of Ankara’s Çankaya Hill for the celebration, unlike all his predecessors including the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Erdoğan is the first popularly elected Turkish president; until a referendum in 2007, all presidents were elected by Parliament.
One of the first things Erdoğan did after assuming the presidency in August this year was to move to a new castle-like palace, which he had launched the construction of when he was still prime minister. That is where he is hosting the official Republic Reception this evening.
The leaders of two opposition parties in Parliament, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), have said they will boycott the reception and celebrate Republic Day “together with the people.” Erdoğan is criticized not only for the high cost of the building, constructed in a disputed area on the publicly-owned Atatürk Forest and Farm. He is also criticized for abandoning a republican symbol: Çankaya was a key symbol of Republican Turkey, like Topkapı Palace in Istanbul was a symbol of the Ottoman Empire, or the White House is a symbol of the U.S. administration.
But Çankaya was not the only symbol of Republican Turkey. Atatürk was a rare visionary who opened quite a number of windows for the future of Turkey. Shifting the system from a sultanate in 1923, right after the War of Independence, was perhaps the greatest of his moves. The next year, he led the way for trade liberalization right before the Treaty of Lausanne, where rgw sovereignty of the self-declared Republic was recognized by the international community. The same year, in 1924, he received the authority of the Caliph, inherited by Parliament. In 1925, he started a reform movement to shift to the Western-style, Roman calendar, hour and measurement units. In 1928, he announced the Latin script for Turkish to replace the Arabic script that had been used for centuries. In the same year, he declared that Turkey had no state religion and declared it was a secular country, becoming the first among Muslim majority countries to do so.
There are critics who accuse Atatürk of being a dictator, ruling the country with through a single-party regime, led by the CHP that he founded. From time to time, Erdoğan himself points to the elitist nature of that one-party rule, as if liberal democracies dominated the political atmosphere in the 1920s/30s of Europe, which hosted Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and even Chamberlain. Nevertheless, there were two attempts to start a multi-party regime in 1924 and 1930 under Atatürk. Both failed in short time; the remains of the Ottoman times were still too strong and the Republic was too weak. It was only after World War II that a multi-party democracy was brought to Turkey by Atatürk’s comrade in arms and successor, İsmet İnönü. It would later be exposed to three military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, until the Turkish economy was strong enough to sustain itself.
Now, the decade before Turkey’s 100th year in 2023 is critical. Will Turkey be able to maintain its inner peace, especially regarding the Kurdish problem? Will Turkey be able to jump out of the middle-income and middle-democracy trap? Will Turkey manage to remain the only secular democracy in the Islamic world, including promoting the role of women in society? Will Turkey manage to get itself out of the chaotic problems of the Middle East and focus on the European system once again?
Those are critical questions that Turkey will be facing over the next decade. “Yes” as an answer to all those questions will not only be good for the future of Turkey, but also for the peace and prosperity of all the peoples of the region where it lays.