When Kemalists feel oppressed

When Kemalists feel oppressed

If you would like to see how Turkey has changed in the past decade, you should examine what happened during Republic Day on Oct. 29.

On one hand, things that happen every Oct. 29 were repeated – ceremonies were held in big cities to commemorate the foundation of the Turkish Republic 89 years ago, wreaths were placed in front of Atatürk statues and official receptions were organized.

However, a few political parties and organizations refused to join the events this year. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the tiny, yet vocal, Workers Party and the Society for Kemalist Thought were the leading abstainers. We can roughly call all of them Kemalists – a label they would carry with pride.

These Kemalists not only abandoned the official celebrations, they also wanted to organize “alternative” ones, as they believe the republic has been overtaken by “enemies within” (i.e. the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its Islamic allies), and they wanted to separate themselves from the new establishment.

In other words, probably for the first time since the establishment of the republic, the Kemalists defined themselves as in opposition to the status quo.

What is even more curious – and actually tragic – is that the new status quo acted in line with that of the old. The governor of Ankara announced that the “alternative” celebrations would not be allowed. He also added that there was “intelligence” showing that “provocations” would occur during these rallies, a supposed risk that the government could not allow.

Honestly, I did not take this “provocation intelligence” seriously for a moment. I also believe that the Kemalists have the right to demonstrate in line with their ideology, no matter how much I disagree with them. Hence, in my Turkish column, I defended the right of the opposition to organize their “alternative” show.

It was not a big surprise, however, to see that the government disregarded such calls for free expression, insisting that the opposition group rallies would be banned. The separate gatherings took place nonetheless, resulting in a lot of unnecessary skirmishes in Ankara between demonstrators and the police, the latter using tear gas in some instances.

All this led me to reflect a bit on the course of Turkish politics.

This is probably the first time that I have seen Kemalists demanding broader political expression and find myself defending them, as they used to be the very party that tried to limit and suppress political expression.

It is also disappointing to see the new establishment maintaining some of the negative traits of the old government. This makes Turkish politics more like a boring ping-pong match between two similarly-minded camps rather than evolving towards an increasingly liberal future.

If this trend continues it will not be a big surprise to see the Kemalists, who have been the most ardent supporters of state authority at the expense of freedom, to emerge as the new defenders of freedom. They will be doing this only for themselves but will not be alone in conforming to this unfortunate Turkish political custom.