Erdoğan gives glimpse of Turkey’s future with censure of secular opponents

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan provided a possible glimpse of the future he sees for Turkey on Thursday, criticising the main opposition party for misusing the reformist principles of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for its political gain.

“For years, the CHP (Republican People's Party) has abused some of our citizens by using principles such as Atatürkism and modernity,” Erdoğan told a meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“They have no place in Turkey’s future.”

Erdoğan’s criticisms come as the AKP prepares revisions to the country’s constitution ahead of the Turkish republic’s centenary in 2023, which also coincides with his possible re-election. CHP politicians accuse Erdoğan of seeking to use the legal changes to introduce an Islamic state.

The CHP, established by Atatürk in 1919, is a staunch defender of his secular beliefs. Islamist-leaning parties such as the AKP have accused successive CHP leaders of marginalising large swathes of Turkey’s more conservative voters and of suppressing Islam. The CHP says it is a social democratic movement that adheres to Kemalism.

“The aim of the government is not a democratic Turkey, but a theocratic republic based on the principles of religion,” Rafet Zeybek, a CHP parliamentarian and member of the national assembly’s judicial committee, said of the constitutional plans, the Diken news website reported on Wednesday.

Erdoğan, who is using the 2023 centenary as a key launchpad for his party’s policies, said the CHP has taken the country back 25-30 years after winning control of Turkey’s largest cities of Istanbul and Ankara from the AKP in local elections in 2019. “They can’t even provide basic municipal services,” he said.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has led the party since 2010, has sought to reform it and render it attractive to more conservative voters and the country’s large Kurdish minority.

Kılıçdaroğlu, a Kurd, has opposed a crackdown by the government on the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’ Party (HDP), as well as the arrests of thousands of people since a failed military coup in 2016. His policies have sparked a backlash from CHP traditionalists, several of whom have resigned from the party to form alternative political groups saying the party has strayed from its principles.

Kılıçdaroğlu has remained a staunch critic of Erdoğan, accusing him of authoritarianism and marginalising parliament. Erdoğan won vast new executive powers at presidential elections in 2018 following a narrowly-won nationwide referendum marred by accusations of vote-rigging by the CHP and other opposition groups.

Erdoğan and his far-right political allies, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), lack the two-thirds majority in parliament to pass constitutional changes. That means the support of the CHP or the opposition Good Party (IP) is required. It has yet to publicise draft proposals.

On Thursday, Erdoğan repeated a vow to take the legal changes to a nationwide referendum should the CHP and others fail to back his plans.

“We invite everyone to contribute constructively to this process,” he said. “If there is no support, we will let the nation decide.”

Erdoğan’s AKP is rooted in an Islamist political party banned by the Constitutional Court in 1997. His government is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood in the wider Middle East and hosts several leaders of Hamas, which is labelled as a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and Israel.

The AKP says Turkey needs to rid the constitution of its putschist ideology – the document was drawn up after a military coup in 1980 but has since been heavily revised.

The government is not seeking to change the constitution’s original articles of 1924, parliament speaker Mustafa Şentop, a member of Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), said in early February.

The 1924 lawbook contained a provision that the “religion of the state is Islam”. Secularism was introduced with a 1928 amendment and through later reforms overseen by Atatürk to create a modern, democratic and non-religious state.

The AKP says it is democratic, reformist and respects the secular principles of Turkey, pointing to measures it has implemented to help the country secure membership talks with the European Union a decade and a half ago. The talks were frozen following the failed military coup of 2016, with EU politicians citing frequent human rights abuses.