On June 24th, 2018, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president of Turkey, was elected for a second term as the most powerful individual in Turkish politics since the founder of the nation, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – whose given nickname, Ataturk, literally translates to ‘father of the Turks.’
Erdoğan’s hold on power has always been significant and is widely known around the world – even from his early years as co-founder and head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). As prime minister at first, leading the nation with a parliamentary governance system for over a decade, he oversaw large economic development and admirable economic growth. In 2014, he was elected as president in the first-ever direct elections, a post that has ceremonial powers. In 2016, he and his governing party held a referendum on transforming the constitution in a way that changes the governance system to a presidential executive system, including sweeping changes such as giving the President extremely increased powers without much checks to balance, as well as the dissolution of the post of Prime Minister. They won the highly controversial referendum with 51% of the vote. Turkey then changed forever.
There was some talk of a united opposition against Erdoğan in the 2018 presidential election – one that could finally put an end to his long reign as kingmaker in Turkish politics; a nation of much strategic geopolitical significance to the rest of the region and the wider world. The opposition inevitably failed to stop Erdoğan’s re-election, not even securing enough votes to go into a second run-off vote. At the end of his term in power, Erodgan could have led Turkey for two decades. Ataturk ruled for 15 years. In Erdoğan’s obvious aspiration to personify the nation, there is only one man who can rival him: Ataturk.
Ataturk’s Legendary Rise
Even before his election, he was widely compared to Ataturk, a statesman who shifted Turkey from a predominantly Islamic nation to a modern secular nation – what could be said to be the antithesis of what Erdoğan stands for personally and politically. Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 from the ruins of a collapsed Ottoman Empire and cemented the Turkish nation in the form that has existed for almost a century thereafter; leading the Turkish war of independence and defeating invading European powers.
Ataturk’s political ideology becomes remarkably relevant when put up in stark contrast to that of Erdogan’s. By blaming the religiosity of the leadership of the Ottoman Empire for its own demise, he promoted nationalism and ancient Turkish traditions in his new state at the expense of Islam. Ataturk turned away from former Arab territories towards Europe, a move that eventually led to the beginning of the ascension talks between the European Union and Turkey in 2005.
The policies of Ataturk became widely known as Kemalism, focusing on women’s suffrage, banning the Ottoman fez, the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic, as well as enshrining secularism in the constitution and founding the Republican People’s Party (CHP). These are just some of his most well-known accomplishments.
Does The End Justify The Means?
The rise of Erdoğan and the AKP party is from a perspective of hindsight, not surprising at all. In fact, it could have even been considered inevitable, and the story of its rise to the upper echelons of power within the Turkish nation is one that plays out like a movie: everyone can already predict the ending, but is gripped with the storyline either way.
When the party came to power in the 2002 elections, they viewed Ataturk’s reforms at the beginning of the earlier century as highly problematic. The political and legal system, they contested, prevented Muslims from exerting any significant influence in temporal affairs, with laws silencing pro-Islamic politicians in a way that they viewed as repression.
In this case, their freedom of thought, opinion and religion, as well as general personal liberty, was crushed by the quest for secularism at all costs. The tension between secularism and religious fundamentalism is essential to understanding Turkey’s current political climate, as is the military’s role in the state to defend the former – perceived as being the child of Islam and democracy.
Erdoğan’s personal history has as much as a role to play in understanding his trajectory in Turkish politics as anything else as well. As mayor of Istanbul, representing the now-disbanded Reform party, he was imprisoned in 1999 for a speech he gave in the town of Siirt in the religiously conservative southeast part of the country. Convicted of “inciting hatred based on religious differences” for reciting a poem, the constraints of his own nation on his own identity became too visible for him to ignore. As Prime Minister in 2003, he lashed out against secularism’s infringement on religious freedoms.
In contrast, Ataturk once infamously stated that “he is a weak ruler, who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science.”
The Ideology Hardens
The European Commission offered Turkey a formal invitation to begin negotiations for membership in that exclusive club in 2004, a culmination of decades of effort that Ataturk set into motion when he shifted Turkey’s foreign policy to focus on Europe. The AK party hailed it as a validation of its self-described Muslim Democrat worldview. As negotiations stalled and public opinion slowly turned against Turkey joining the EU, Erdoğan’s rhetoric of the Muslim double standard emerged.
The powerful leader and his party began to also see the army and the judiciary, as well as his once-ally and now-nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, as challengers, and a threat to their survival after there were several attempts to silence or sanction their policies and rhetoric. The Arab Spring – beginning in 2011 and arguably still lasting – could be said to have arrived at the most heightened moment of insecurity for Erdoğan’s and his ideological survival. The West mutely acquiesced to the military overthrow of his friend Mohammed Morsi. Whilst facing Arab hostility, Turkey refused to accept the legitimacy of Morsi’s over-thrower, current Egyptian president Abdul-Fattah El-Sisi.
In 2016, some members of the Turkish military attempted to overthrow Erdoğan’s government and contain the slide away from secularism but ultimately failed. A remorseless Erdoğan felt vindicated in his claims of deep-state conspiracies against him, leading to the arrest of 160,000 people under the decree of a state of emergency, controlling the media, and shutting down civil-society organizations.
Democracy As A Vehicle, Not A Goal
President Erdoğan and his AK governing party, after 16 years in power, are being accused of trying to supplant Ataturk as the country’s most revered leader through emphasizing Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic heritage over its secular heritage. It almost seems as if Erdoğan had studied Ataturk’s playbook, and approached politics from the opposite end of the cultural-social-ideological spectrum, but with the same tactics.
In Erdoğan’s view, he had pushed back against what was an aggressive form of secularism and began to implement restrictions on the sale of alcohol and restored the lawfulness of headscarves for women. Peculiarly, the AKP began to view itself as the Turkish – and Muslim – version of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, also undeniably one of the longest serving in Germany’s history and Germany’s most powerful individual in modern history.
Ataturk’s gravest fault, Erdoğan believes, was that his “modernizing” reforms were not, as official history once asserted, wildly popular, but they were rather imposed in a top-down authoritative manner on a population that resented being cut off from their faith and culture. By identifying the similarities between populism and nationalism, and walking the fine line between both, Erdoğan upended not only the political establishment but also the national and ideological foundation of the country altogether, hoping to re-mould it into one centred on his contributions to Turkish society instead.
He is arguably more of a nationalist than he is an Islamist; too much of a Turkish patriot to be a pan-Islamist. No problem is of his making, and no solution is possible without him. New Turkey, under Erdoğan, is to be a synthesis of Islamic nationalism and Ottoman nostalgia. History will be kind to him, or all else is damned. The Turkish president is much less focused on the time-consuming task of internal consolidation of power. In the 1990’s, Erdoğan famously said: “Democracy was a ‘vehicle, not a goal’.“
Was It All Worth It?
New powers won’t, however, free him from obstacles ahead. Erdoğan burned a lot of bridges in his time in power, and the region around him has changed entirely since his times as Prime Minister, with now insurmountable obstacles for Turkey. A blockade on his closest regional ally, Qatar, the collapse of Turkey’s “no problems with neighbours” policy, resurgence in animosity with Greece, a frozen Cypriot conflict, a bitter feud with European nations, a tug of war between the United States and Russia over influence, a free-falling currency, a reversal of influence in Syria’s civil war, a dilemma of walking a very thin fine-line between Iran and the Sunni coalition against it, a flaring Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a potential existential crisis with Turkey’s Kurdish population, just to name a few.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might have fought his way against a gigantic tide of secularism to rise to the top. He might have even been successful in ensuring his legend might one day rival or exceed Ataturk’s, but his job now is not an enviable one, nor is there much guarantee that all will end well. An often-overlooked consequence of reaching the very top of power is the severity of the fall. Erdoğan’s fate might very well now be tied to the rest of the Turkish nation.
The world is at a crossroads, and a bitterly divided nation waits.