Atatürk’s legacy and Erdoğan’s Turkey

Murat Yetkin


A hundred years ago on May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal Pasha set foot on the Black Sea port of Samsun as a young general of the defeated Turkish army under the Ottoman Rule with a handful of his brothers in arms. His mission as the commander of the 9th Army as mandated by Sultan Vahdettin was to suppress the Turkish nationalist resistance in the Eastern Black Sea region against the invading armies and their collaborators. Following the Mondros Armistice of October 30, 1918, ending the First World War for the Ottomans, Turkey was under the invasion of British, French Italian, Georgian and Armenian armies. Only four days before Kemal Pasha made it to Samsun, on another coast of the country on May 15, the Greek’s invasion of the Western port of Izmir had started: that was the final straw for many Turks.
Breaking the Sultan’s mandate, Kemal Pasha followed other plans that he had, uniting spontaneous civilian resistance groups with almost half of the military comprised of men who did not agree with the Sultan, and who thought he was only facilitating the works of the invaders. Kemal thus made his first manifestation in Amasya in June, which resulted in the Sheikh ul-Islam in Istanbul sentencing him to death in his absence. He convened the first resistance congress in the Eastern city of Erzurum in June, followed by Sivas in September. When he made his way to the central Anatolian town of Ankara in late December, he had officially become the leader of the Turkish resistance.
That’s why the 19th of May is considered as the beginning of the Turkish Independence War, which resulted in the end of the invasion, as well as the collapse of the six- century- long Ottoman dynasty, and the establishment of the Turkish Republic on October 29, 1923. Kemal, later adopting the surname Atatürk, meaning “father of Turks”, gave utmost importance to the date, and even registered it as his birth day. He designated it as the “Festival of Youth and Sports”, which is still being celebrated under the same name.
Reforms followed the establishment of the Republic. It was not a time where democracy was at its peak in Europe; Mussolini was in power in Italy, Hitler was inching towards Germany and Russia was under Stalin’s Soviet rule. Yet, Atatürk took some radical steps towards attaining the level of development in what he dubbed “contemporary civilization”, namely Western civilization. Separating state and religion through secular rule was a start. From equal electoral rights for women to changing scripture from Arabic to Latin letters, replacing the Islamic calendar with its universal counterpart, to adopting the Italian penal code and the French and Swiss civil codes he managed to get this “new Turkey” recognized by the international community.
The first iron and steel complex of the country, state sponsored textile factories, shoe factories, sugar factories and the railways… A modern Turkey, perhaps poorer but proud.
His number two, İsmet İnönü, who saved the country from the disasters of the Second World War, maintained the country’s place in the Western world afterwards. İnönü also paved the way towards turning the one-party regime under the Republican People’s Party (CHP) into a multi-party democracy in 1950.
Five decades after it was that very same democracy, wounded by three Cold- War- style military coups, which brought the Justice and Development Party (AKP) into power in November 2002, with its Islamist/conservative ideology and its charismatic leader, former mayor of Istanbul , Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
He was celebrated by Turkey’s western allies, especially by the U.S. who were upset with the Turkish Army which they believed did notr do their best to convince the AKP government for opening up Turkish territories for American troops to invade neighbouring Iraq in 2003. Ignoring a handful of politicians and commentators saying that the political enthusiasm of the military was not the only problem on the road to a better democracy and economy in Turkey, Erdoğan enjoyed full support from the West in his first years, seen as a cure for Kemalist modernism in the army, as well as the judiciary and educational systems: he was going to transform it all.
Erdoğan did indeed transform the Turkish system but to the great disappointment of his one-time supporters in the West.
All executive powers are now in President Erdoğan’s hands; something which Atatürk did not enjoy and actually rejected when proposed. That weakened the role of the parliament and the judiciary.
Erdoğan wants a “mosque-oriented society” in Turkey, as he recently stated. Still secular on paper and in the Constitution, religion plays a greater role in state affairs. This did have its consequences: In 2016 there was a military coup attempt in Turkey conspired by an Islamist faction with its chief living in the U.S.; the generals who had abused Atatürk’s name for their own power games now pay lip service only when they really have to mention his name.
Nowadays, Turkey is debating the role of the judiciary in cancelling the March 31 municipal elections in Istanbul after the opposition CHP candidate’s win. Following insistent applications and statements by Erdoğan’s AKP, the Supreme Election Board which, consists of high judges ruled in favor of the re-run on June 23. The politicization problem of the judiciary evidently still exists.
The traditional Turkish foreign policy motto “Peace at home, peace in the world” is much damaged, especially after the break of the Arab Spring in 2010. Turkish involvement in the Syrian civil war boosted the terrorism problem in Turkey. The country’s name has started to be mentioned alongside Salafi terror groups, shaming many Turkish citizens. Once a co-founder of the Council of Europe, Turkey is seen as a country in the Middle East quagmire, using its relations with Russia and Iran as a leverage against the U.S. And the U.S. administrations, which used to consider Erdoğan as an exemplary role model on democratic rule in a Muslim society, are now turning him into a target for hatred, collaborating with Turkey’s number one security problem: the PKK in Syria. Back in 1999, they had helped the arrest of its leader.
The economy is in decline which is not helped by Erdoğan’s appointment of his son-in-law as the Finance and Treasury Minister. Erdoğan knows that another IMF program could help Turkey, but he has not been in good terms with concepts like transparency and accountability; the public procurement law has been amended more than a hundred times according to the needs of the day since the last IMF program was in effect when Erdoğan took the power. Inflation is on the rise, unemployment is on the rise, interest rates and current account deficit are on the rise but it is not always easy to voice them. Some ninety per cent of the media outlets is now in the hands of investors in the orbit of Erdoğan.
When some politicians complained to him about the press “writing everything”, Atatürk had said “the solution to problems sourcing from the freedom of press, is the freedom of press” and that was 1934.
On this centennial anniversary of the start of the Turkish resistance against not only invading armies but also a corrupt Sultan, for the sake of a better future for Turkey, and as a journalist believing in that goal, it is not possible for me not to remember Atatürk.


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