In 1923, out of the ashes of Ottoman ruin, the Republic of Turkey was born. Its first President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a respected Marshall who fought for the waning Empire in the First World War, a war in which he rose to prominence, before leading the Turkish War of Independence against the Greeks, Armenians, French and British forces who’d occupied Turkish lands following the Ottoman defeat. The Turkish armies secured the Western and Eastern borders and, against all odds, succeeded in securing Constantinople from the Allied occupation forces. Atatürk emerged from the independence struggle a national hero, duly acceding to the Presidency on 29th October 1923.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, born in Thessaloniki, modern-day Greece, defined his presidency through sweeping reforms to Turkish society. The old tenets of the Ottoman establishment; imperialism, Islamic theocracy, Persian as literary language, were discarded in favour of the ideology that became known as Kemalism. Turkish society was thus designed along Western enlightenment ideals, as Atatürk established a modern, secular, democratic society stretching from Thrace to Hakkâri. The caliphate was declared1 abolished and the Turkish Presidency became constitutionally separated from the ideologies of political Islamism. All promising signs for a nascent nation with an ambition to join the ranks of Europe’s most advanced and modern nation states.
Yet, Atatürk’s legacy is in grave danger of being entirely undone. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embodies everything that Atatürk identified as being wrong with Turkish society that held it back and precipitated the decline of the Ottoman Empire; Islamism, theocracy, a lack of democratic accountability and the incessant interference in the affairs of foreign neighbouring nations.
The recent constitutional amendments, narrowly secured by way of a democratically flawed referendum, are evidence of this recent shift in societal structure. Amongst other things, the constitutional amendments drastically redesigned the executive branch of government, replacing the parliamentary emphasis with a powerful executive presidency with significant powers, such as the ability to dismiss governments, hire and fire supreme court judges, and decree a state of emergency on spurious grounds. Even the least cynical of observers will acknowledge that this was simply a ploy by President Erdoğan to centralise more power under his aegis.
The constitutional amendment referendum itself was indicative of Turkey’s recent shift from Kemalism to Islamism. Rushed through parliament in the aftermath of the 2016 Coup Attempt, the referendum campaign was characterised by events more akin to banana republic than modern secular democracy. President Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) monopolised television and radio broadcasting, imprisoned opposition leaders and permitted unofficial/unmarked ballots – of which there were over 1.5 million – to count towards the final result. Despite these tactics, the constitutional changes were approved narrowly by 51.41% of the electorate. The changes were opposed by clear majorities in the urban centres of Istanbul and Ankara.
President Erdoğan used the attempted coup d’etat as a pretext to clamp down on civil society, arresting 40,000 people including 10,000 soldiers and 2,745 judges.
Sunday 24th June marks the first General Election since these constitutional amendments took effect. The first round of the presidential elections will be held – followed by a second round weeks later if the result isn’t definitive – as well as elections for the 600-seat parliament, now largely reduced to the role of rubber-stamping budgets. All polls indicate that President Erdoğan will be elected by a large majority, perhaps even in the first round of voting. Equally, the parliamentary election is on course to be won by the ruling AKP party and its nationalist coalition partners (MHP).
Once this formality has been confirmed, it will mark the death of Atatürk’s political legacy. Turkey will have completed its transition from West to East, choosing to embrace neo-Ottoman Islamist ideological ambitions to the detriment of European secular democracy. Of course, should this be the genuine democratic choice of the Turkish people, then who are we to dispute their decision? But it will be a great shame for their future, as President Erdoğan’s ideological path will undoubtedly result in isolation and arrested development.