Which part of Atatürk's legacy is Erdoğan endorsing?

In his annual speech commemorating the anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan delivered a full-throated endorsement of the legacy left by the founder of the republic, and sharp criticism of how his memory had been tarnished by present and past opponents of his regime.

Given Erdoğan’s history of keeping the secularist figure at arm’s length, his strong tones registered reactions of surprise and claims of hypocrisy. Perhaps correctly, many see this new-found love of Atatürk as a cynical overture to Turkey’s ardent nationalists, who may favour the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) or breakaway nationalist Good Party, ahead of elections in 2019.

It is worth asking, however, if there’s not something more at play here, since Erdoğan’s grip on the electorate is hardly in danger, and the speech included pointed assertions about the claims various political parties have made to the memory of Atatürk. If these sentiments are sincere, then the speech hints at the direction in which Turkey’s present authoritarian transition might be headed.

Erdoğan’s treatment of Atatürk and the legacy of the party he established, the CHP, is a major indication. Rather than call out the CHP leader Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, Erdoğan impugns Atatürk’s immediate successor, İsmet İnönü.

İnönü served as prime minister throughout Atatürk’s authoritarian consolidation in the 1920s and early 1930s, and as president from the time of Atatürk’s death in 1938 until his party was defeated by the Democrat Party in 1950. In his speech, Erdoğan stated that, “the CHP that claims to carry on Atatürk’s legacy cut its relationship with Mustafa Kemal on November 10, 1938,” claiming that after Atatürk’s death, İnönü sought to make the party in his own image. In some respects, this is an incendiary claim. İnönü had risen to prominence by fighting valiantly by Mustafa Kemal’s side in the War of Independence, was a loyal foot-soldier in Atatürk’s secular revolution, and after 1938 laid the foundations of the cultish legacy that has persisted around Atatürk for eight decades.

However, Erdoğan’s position has a kernel of historical precedent. By late 1937, as Atatürk’s health was declining, İnönü had fallen out of favour with Atatürk. İnönü was removed as prime minister in October 1937 in favour of Celal Bayar, the founder of one of Turkey’s largest banks.

While popular sentiment had always favoured İnönü as successor to Atatürk, it has long been suggested that Bayar was Atatürk’s preferred option and that opponents of Inönü had plotted to remove him from parliament before Ataturk’s death, and there were rumours that Ataturk had issued a secret will that warned, “do not elect a president with a military background”.

Bayar would yield to İnönü in presidential elections held by parliament in the wake of Atatürk’s death, and stay on as prime minister into the following year before leaving the government over disputes with İnönü. Implicit in Erdoğan’s assertion about the party leaving Atatürk, is the idea that Bayar would have brought Atatürk’s revolution forward in the way that the man always envisioned.

İsmet İnönü and Celal Bayar after the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
İsmet İnönü and Celal Bayar after the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

This is actually a defensible claim, as Bayar and İnönü’s differences were more than personal. Bayar favoured a more liberal, pro-business economic policy, and supported the short-lived Liberal Republican Party in the 1930 municipal elections. İnönü, on the other hand, was the staunchest defender of state-led economic development as prime minister. He forged an economic relationship with the Soviet Union, implemented a Five-Year Plan, and fiercely defended state-led industrialisation against the Liberal Republican Party and other dissenters in parliament.

Bayar was also the most prominent founder of the market-oriented Democrat Party and would serve as president from 1950 to 1960. The evidence is not conclusive, but it makes sense that Atatürk may have favoured a liberal-minded successor to usher in a more democratic era following the completion of his cultural revolution, and thus may have favoured Bayar as the one to pick up his mantle.

By implicitly suggesting that Atatürk’s politics championed a liberal economic future for Turkey, one might think Erdoğan was signalling a return to a model of economic liberalisation that his party championed in its early years. Such a return would be rather disingenuous, however, and not likely to help his electoral prospects in the near term. What it may signal, however faintly, is that Erdoğan views his promises of a thriving free market economy – and likely his promises about democracy and human rights as well – as the ends rather than the means of his authoritarian transition. In this way, he may be most like Atatürk, whose policies prioritised “raising the level of civilisation” over democratisation in every respect.

In the midst of a wide-scale revision of Turkey’s cultural, political, and legal institutions, it is clear that President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is not merely interested in silencing his political opponents, but reshaping society by redesigning school curricula, empowering religious institutions, and limiting rights for marginalised groups.

Atatürk’s cultural revolution may well have been more secular, but the full implementation of that revolution was, like Erdoğan’s, viewed as a prerequisite for any transition to a liberal democratic order. Erdoğan has famously referred to democracy as a tramway which Turkey should get off when it arrives at its stop. These days it seems like the tram has been renamed and the conductor has a new route.