Erdoğan takes Turkey back to its beginnings

100 years ago today, Turkey was conceived on a lie.

On May 19, 1919, a cunning Ottoman general named Mustafa Kemal arrived on a steamship in Samsun, on the Black Sea coast. A few days prior, in Constantinople, he had convinced occupying British officials that he would willingly serve as inspector general and report back on the post-World War One status of Ottoman forces across Anatolia.

Upon his arrival in Samsun, however, he did no such thing. Kemal instead reached out to Ottoman units across Anatolia, warning them of the recent Italian and Greek landings on the Mediterranean coast and recruiting them to join him in fighting the Allied forces in what would become Turkey’s War for Independence.

Every Turkish schoolchild knows the tale of the Samsun landing, which is now a national holiday. But few know precisely how the leader of the War for Independence ruled after founding the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Yes, Kemal ended the caliphate and created an ostensibly secular democracy. He hauled Turkey into the modern age with a variety of crucial reforms and education initiatives. But right up until his death in 1938, Atatürk -- "the father of Turks"--  as he was dubbed in 1934, wielded absolute and unchecked power.

He banned all opposition political parties and shut down religious and civil organisations, from feminist clubs to Sufi groups. He never ran in an election: the one time Atatürk faced a vote he was unanimously elected president of the two-day-old republic by 158 deputies.

His courts executed as many as 5,000 dissidents. One critic, Ali Şükrü Bey, was choked to death by an Atatürk guard. Political rival Kazım Karabekir, a key leader and general in the War for Independence, was tossed in jail after his political party was outlawed.

Sound familiar?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not banned the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), but he has called its members terrorists, thrown many of its leaders in jail and dismissed dozens from their mayoral posts. What he has done to tens of thousands of supposed followers of his friend-turned-foe Fethullah Gülen, whom Turkey blames for the failed 2016 coup, has been well documented.

Last month, main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was nearly killed by a mob of Erdoğan supporters on the streets of the capital. Last week, a journalist who had been critical of Erdoğan was pummelled with baseball bats outside his home, suffering brain trauma and a broken nose.

Atatürk and Erdoğan have a good deal in common. Both relied on populist nationalism to stoke support. Both proved willing to erode the rights of minorities. Both took firm control of the media, and both had serious trust issues regarding elections.

There is one crucial difference, however. Atatürk was a dictator in an era when that style of leadership was not uncommon. Across Europe, authoritarians came to power to build new states after the fall of empires: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, Pilsudski in Poland, and Stalin in the Soviet Union, to name a few whose records do not compare favourably to that of Turkey’s strongman.

In his drive to push Turkey toward the secular West, Atatürk cracked down harshly against religious and conservative groups, marginalising devout Muslim communities. The rise of conservatives a few decades later, such as Prime Minister Turgut Özal and, to a greater extent, Erdoğan mentor and Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, was a predictable backlash.

Less predictable -- particularly as western observers regularly bent the knee toward Erdoğan during his early years in power -- has been Turkey’s turn, under the latest iteration of those conservatives, toward a long-outdated style of governance.

The annulment of the March 31 Istanbul mayoral vote earlier this month, as a result of pressure from Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), looked suspiciously like a move toward a one-party state.

The last time Erdoğan effectively annulled an election -- when he called for a quick do-over after the June 2015 parliamentary vote took away the AKP’s parliamentary majority, for the first and thus far only time -- he had a trick up his sleeve to ensure victory. Within weeks the AKP government had ended the peace process with Kurdish insurgents and resurrected the conflict in Turkey’s southeast in an effort to stoke greater nationalist sentiment.

What might Erdoğan have planned this time around, to hold onto his beloved Istanbul? Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be good for Turkish democracy. But is he willing to lose his last few shreds of political legitimacy and go the full Atatürk?

H.C. Armstrong, a British official who served in Turkey for years before and after the country’s founding, knew most top Turkish officials, including Atatürk. He seemed to forgive Turkey’s founder for his authoritarian ways, closing his 1932 Atatürk biography, Grey Wolf, with this: “He is dictator in order that it may be impossible ever again that there should be in Turkey a dictator."

In the eight decades since Atatürk left Turkey’s political stage, Armstrong’s prediction held true. The multi-party era began in 1946 with the founding of the Democratic Party, and a series of coalition governments ruled. There were several coups, with the last coming in 1997, but Turkey was widely seen to be democratising, with the emergence of the AKP in 2002 as the capstone.

When Erdoğan first became prime minister in 2003, he vowed to respect Turkey’s democratic institutions. A decade later he declared, “Democracy's path passes through the ballot box...the ballot box itself is the people’s will.”

Those days are long gone. Last week the Washington Post said in an editorial that Turkey “has been reduced to a dictatorship marked by hit squads and fear.”

That may be jumping the gun. Erdoğan and the AKP came to power via the ballot box, not brute force, and they have held onto power through a series of largely free, if not entirely fair, elections. Opposition parties remain, and even made some real gains in the March 31 vote, regardless of what ultimately happens in Istanbul.

Still, a century after Samsun, with four years to go until its centennial, Turkey is just barely a democracy.

For years, analysts worried that Erdoğan was Islamising Turkey and moving away from Atatürk’s western-inspired secular ideal. The real problem is that Erdoğan is slowly but surely returning the country to its origins in one-party dictatorship.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.