A century after the foundation of the republic, the legacy of “father of the Turks” has been challenged, but it cannot be erased

Last update: 2023-11-09 10:52:06

On October 29th, Turkey celebrated the Centenary of the proclamation of the republic and its founder Mustafa Kemal, better known as Atatürk, “the father of the nation”. This anniversary is the main theme of the book “A Companion to Modern Turkey's Centennial. Political, Sociological, Economic and Institutional Transformations since 1923”, freshly published by Edinburgh University Press. We asked Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the London Metropolitan University and editor, together with Alpaslan Özerdem, to help us in deciphering this event.


Mauro Primavera interviews Ahmet Erdi Öztürk


The centennial is supposed to celebrate the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. However, the Presidente who is leading the celebrations is the same person who has been trying for the last two decades to outdo Mustafa Kemal and Kemalism. Is it possible to compare Mustafa Kemal and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?


It is a very difficult question. First of all, as a social scientist, one of my duties is to evaluate and scrutinize every single period, political actor, and political situation based on the historical context, because each time frame is unique and presents its specific opportunities and difficulties. Concerning Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Erdoğan, one should limit the comparison only to some quantitative aspects, such as the number of years they served as president of the republic. On the other hand, the terms and conditions are very different, given that the desires and the political visions of the two leaders are extremely different. However, in terms of political strategies, methodologies, and the instrumentalization of certain aspects of Turkish society and the State, there are similarities between the two. They are not necessarily identical, but they can at least be compared.


The first one is that both of these political actors have a desire for power. They are very ambitious and power-oriented political figures, with a particular vision for their country and for their political careers. Indeed, it would be unfair to say that Mustafa Kemal had planned a political journey for himself, but he did have one. The second one is that they would like to leave a mark on their time, but I am not very keen to compare these two figures. To begin with, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is the indisputable leader and the winner of the independence war, thus making any comparison impossible. Secondly, we should consider the historical context: Mustafa Kemal lived during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish War of Independence. He established the modern Turkish state without the assistance of any single institution, without the support of any transnational umbrella organizations and without a properly educated middle class. In 1923 he proclaimed the Republic: few years later, in 1929, the global economic depression hit the whole world and during the 1930s, far-right parties emerged across continental Europe. His conditions were extremely difficult. After all, he did a miracle.


Erdoğan’s period was very different from Mustafa Kemal’s. In fact, when we look at the latter, one could notice that the years between 2002 and 2007 were marked by a worldwide economic boom. Despite the September 11 attacks and many critical junctures regarding religion and politics, Erdoğan had the opportunity to demonstrate how Islam could be compatible with the values of contemporary democracies and with the neoliberal capitalist economy as well. Atatürk didn’t have that chance: he was an indisputable leader because he ruled under a single-party system. On the contrary, Erdoğan is running the country based on the number of votes received. However, he dominated the elections and defeated the opposition, although this one was not very solid. In addition, one should consider party-political dynamics and the role of the international community, which adds more complexity to the analysis. I am not categorically refusing to compare these two leaders, but if there is the second centennial of Turkey, scholars, academics, and public figures will discuss the Erdoğan period much deeper, just as we are doing today with Atatürk’s one. Anyway, as I said before, it is not scientifically accurate to compare these two leaders under the same conditions.


For example, after the collapse of the semi-theological and semi-civic Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a new country, a new system. Apart some some continuities with the Ottoman period, everyone who is familiar with Turkey would say that one of the main characteristics of the new republic is its secular structure. In Turkish we have the word laik, which is different from the French term laïcité, as well as from the Anglo-Saxon type of secularism. Once the Republic was proclaimed, Republican elites established in 1924 an institution called Diyanet, the Presidency of Religious Affairs. On paper, this shows a clear division between religion and the State and the latter, that aimed to control and manage religious affairs for its own benefits. Since this happened during the Atatürk period, we tend to consider him as a secular, as a laik. Now we are living during the Erdoğan’s period. What we know is that he is considered as an “Islamist”, a “conservative”, a “Muslim political actor”. I am using these terms, even though they are highly debatable, they are not written on stone for him. Erdoğan’s methodological instrumentalization of Diyanet is specular to how Mustafa Kemal instrumentalized Diyanet as well. They had, more or less, the same path. I don’t know if it’s a correct analogy, but I would say that they have similar football styles, but they play in different leagues.


Does Turkish society make this comparison?


I know a couple of surveys related to this. They have not been published yet, that’s why I can’t give you the names of the prestigious companies that carried out the survey, but I know a couple of landslide results. Interviewees were asked to answer the following question: “who is the most influential political actor in the history of contemporary Turkey?”. More than 80-85% of the respondents answered “Mustafa Kemal Atatürk”, only 10-15% said “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan”. From a social perspective, Erdoğan is the main decision maker: he is one of the biggest, maybe the biggest, indicator to understand the current political system under many different aspects, but this situation is valid only for today’s conditions. Mustafa Kemal remains the founder; that’s something different. In every state institution, you will see two photos on the walls: Atatürk’s and Erdoğan’s, both of the same size. However, Erdoğan is the 12th president of the republic; there will be the 13th, 14th, 15th president and so on, but clearly there’s only one first president. Erdoğan is an extremely influential and solid political actor, not only in the present. We will continue discussing Erdoğan’s period even in the future, probably using a term called “Erdoğanism”, similar to Kemalism or Ozalism.


The centennial sounds paradoxical: for Erdoğan, it represents an important opportunity to launch his project of a new Turkey, but at the same time the anniversary is characterized by an evident nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. Is the reis nurturing a sort of revisionist vision regarding the current borders of the State? How does he value the Treaty of Lausanne, which restored the Turkish nation after the territorial amputations decided by the Treaty of Sèvres? Is this a foundational moment, or is it something to overcome?     


It’s true that there is a Sèvres trauma within the society due to what happened in the past. It is rooted in the Turkish education system. I know the indoctrination process that has been instilling such a syndrome for years. When we were in high school, our teachers taught us: “Turkey is a country surrounded by the sea on three sides, and by enemies on four sides”. If the education system has not changed, it is quite difficult for any Turk to consider Greece or Armenia as neighboring countries. Of course, they are neighbors, and it would be very logical to establish friendly relations with them and create a mutually beneficial collaboration in accordance with international law. However, as soon as Turks establish relations with them, they always watch their backs. I wouldn’t say that it’s logical, but this is the reality.


For certain political groups, such as Kemalists, Social Democrats, and most of the Left, Lausanne is a success story. Actually, the Treaty of Lausanne was a very important declaration and a diplomatic and strategical success, considering the international power balance at the end of the First World War. I do not think that Erdoğan’s main strategic team or current foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, have been acting in accordance with the Sèvres or Lausanne mentality. Times have changed dramatically.


We are not living in a colonial age anymore, we are not living in a post-colonial age, but we will continue to witness various forms of neocolonialism. Take for example the United Kingdom, where I’m currently based, which is a constitutional empire. I would easily say that the United Kingdom is a declining empire, but the empire was so huge that the falling process protracted over time. Let’s relate this to the horrible things that are happening in the Middle East: there is no excuse to defend what Israel has been currently doing, just like it is impossible to defend Hamas. It’s a tragedy in terms of human lives that could have transnational impacts. Acting as a former colonial power, United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has been traveling across the region, trying to promote negotiations. Similarly, Macron’s France is very influential in many areas of North Africa that were once part of the former French Empire. Given that, Erdoğan and his team are reading that global neocolonial power-oriented competition, but do not define themselves in colonialist terms, because the Ottoman Empire was not a colonial power like the United Kingdom or France.


They claim that there are many commonalities and similarities in terms of language, culture, history, religion between Turkey and former Ottoman territories. Geopolitically, Turkey has been standing in a very strategical position: it is very easy for Turkey to reach Northern Africa and the Middle East. I would hesitate to use the concept of “breach”, but Turkey plays a crucial role for a number of issues. For example, today the Black Sea is a linking point with the Russians, especially after Putin’s brutal invasion to Ukraine. Given the current events in the Middle East and Turkey’s positionality in the region, the country has emerged as a significant player. Erdoğan has been using this “colonial” or “neocolonial” mentality, but he thinks that Turkey is a country that can exert a larger influence beyond its legal territories by using many transnational state apparatuses. If used appropriately, one of the achievements of Erdoğan’s team would be exploiting some of the Republican institutions or newly established institutions in a transnational way.


What will be Erdoğan’s next political moves?


Next year there will be a local election. Erdoğan is eager to regain the country’s major cities. It’s important to underline that his base is Istanbul, because he is a product of Istanbul, and that city has many different meanings for Erdoğan. It was a trauma for him to lose Istanbul against Ekrem İmamoğlu. In addition, this is Erdoğan’s last term according to the constitution. As far as I can understand from abroad, he would like to remain in power for as long as possible. Under these circumstances, he needs to amend the constitution, either through the parliament or via referendum. The point is that despite the economic fragility in Turkey, despite many difficulties, he’s still popular. Changing the constitution might be possible, but there are many factors to consider. For instance, what will be the position of the Kurds? Will there be a leadership change within the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party? How will the public react to it? After the last election, there has been a significant depoliticization within the society: how will this affect the future of Turkey? What we know is that he wants to remain in power. At the same time, we know that scholars who are familiar with Turkish politics and politicians will begin discussing what will happen after Erdoğan. There are some potential candidates: Ekrem İmamoğlu, mayor of Istanbul, and Hakan Fidan, minister of foreign affairs, are the most important ones. The latter is acquainted with the State institutions, and he’s making international appearances. Another one is Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdoğan’s son-in-law: he is a key figure for the process of “dronization” of Turkish foreign policy. Finally, Özgür Özel, the candidate for the presidency of the Republican People’s Party, would be another relevant actor.


After Erdoğan, a new era will commence for Turkey, but the main question is: will it start under the shadow of Erdoğan or without his influence? As a social scientist, I believe that the first scenario is more likely to happen. The president has been running the country for two decades and before that his group was an influential actor in the municipalities, such as Istanbul and Ankara. Under his leadership, we have been observing a social transformation in various aspects.


With regard to this aspect, how much has the Turkish society changed?


In a hundred years, Turkey has experienced significant transformations. In some parts, the country shows social dynamics similar to those of Western countries. Turkey is a country where it is possible to see important women movements; despite every pressure in Istanbul, it is even possible to see huge LGBTQ celebrations. Within Turkish society, there is a polarization in terms of religiosity and lifestyle. Turkey’s women movements are considered to be among the most valuable in the world right now – this is not only because they are very talented, but also because they are a product of the Republic. These are the positive aspects of the country, but the sad and dramatic part is that Turkish political actors do not know the concept of retirement.


Under Erdoğan’s presidency, the country has undergone significant changes in various aspects. There are some standard patterns within Turkish society. An important social scientist, Şerif Mardin, had a theory: “a secular teacher would be a much more influential figure than an Imam. However, a hundred years later, we can affirm that the Imam is a much stronger figure than a teacher in Turkey”. This marks a profound transformation.


In what conditions are the opposition parties, and especially those aligned with Kemalism, approaching the anniversary?


The opposition has many weak points that emerged during the previous election. First of all, it unquestionably has the wrong candidate who, just like Erdoğan, will try to stay in power. On the 4th of November, there will be a general congress of the opposition parties, which will be attended by the president of the Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, his opponent Özgür Özel, and the group led by Ekrem İmamoğlu. They are merely calculating the number of votes they would receive in the main Congress. I know that there will be some celebrations in Istanbul, but right now the opposition parties’ are focused on the Congress and on the discussion of inner party politics. It is so pitiful that the founding political party of the Republic, the Republican People’s Party, is not dealing with the foundational period of Turkey and is not scrutinizing what it did within these hundred years nor what it would do for the next hundred. Right now, their members are fighting each other. That’s a very sad story.


Even though it is too early to make any predictions, a strong anti-Erdoğan coalition has yet to be formed. There might be an informal, unconventional coalition, but this would likely only occur in specific areas of the country. Ideologically, the leaders of the opposition come from different backgrounds, and their interests are contrasting. Apart from Ekrem İmamoğlu and Özgür Özel, they are old political figures, not only in terms of age, but also in terms of political age. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu lost thirteen elections, something unacceptable for Western mentality. The only victory came in the 2019 local elections, where they achieved a remarkable success. Notwithstandig this, they lost the general election despite harsh economic conditions and despite Erdoğan’s tiredness after twenty years in power.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation