Where Turkey is heading today

Where Turkey is heading today

The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

The Empire had left behind a parliamentary tradition, among other assets and this could have been the basis of a democratic republic. However, the war hero-turned-president Atatürk soon took the fateful step of establishing a single-party state instead of a multi-party democracy. That is why Atatürk and his followers (i.e., the “Kemalists”) dominated the state singlehandedly throughout the second quarter of the 20th century.

Atatürk not only established an authoritarian regime, which was “benevolent” according to his supporters, yet not-so-benevolent according to his opponents. He also initiated a process of “cultural revolution” in order to transform society. This was a top-down effort to westernize society, from its alphabet to its dress code. It was only partially successful, though, as a large part of society remained silent opponents. The biggest component in this non-Kemalist camp constituted of religious conservatives, who disliked the authoritarian secularization and Westernization program of the regime.

Since 1950, the year of the “Turkish Spring,” religious conservatives had the opportunity to vote for center-right and Islamic-leaning parties that would represent, or at least, respect their values.

However, this democratic participation was limited, and sometimes cut short, by the Kemalist elite, which had created mechanisms for its own dominance. Especially the military, the citadel of Kemalism, executed a system of “tutelage” on elected politicians, by military coups and coup threats.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is indeed a “historic” leader, as his supporters say, because he defeated this 90-year-old Kemalist domination on Turkish politics. He, in that sense, spearheaded a process of “democratization,” which made the ballots the sole source of political power. However, political scientists well know that a “democracy” that only emphasizes the power of the ballots — and disregards the rule of law, checks-and-balances, and civil liberties — can easily turn out to be “illiberal democracy,” if not “the tyranny of the majority.”

That is the threat that Turkey faces now, at a time that religious conservatives are assuming full power, and with an exuberant sense of come-back after decades of oppression. To be fair, Erdoğan and his supporters take great pains to emphasize that their “New Turkey” will be a very democratic, free and egalitarian one, in which no one will be discriminated against. But various facts on the ground seem to contradict this politically correct talk.

Moreover, Erdoğan is now using a language of agitation against “enemies within,” which are supposedly the spies of foreign governments (and “Zionists”) who aim to topple his “New Turkey.”

Especially his rhetoric against the Gülen Movement, which was once his main partner in the silent revolution against the old regime; it reminds me of a very unpleasant era in world history marked by fears of “Trotskyite subversion.”  

That is why where Turkey is heading after 90 years of secularist domination is not very clear. Perhaps, the current tensions will prove to be temporary excesses, and a more liberal era will gradually come.

Or, perhaps, Turkey will be stuck for quite a while in a new era of conservative domination, with its own glorified leader, and its own cultural revolution. We will see.