Contextualising Erdoğan’s Political Rise, The Kemalist Context: Part 1

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Turkey stands at a crossroads. Today, the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stands as a turning point for the country. It signifies a pivot away from the nation’s secular roots towards a more traditional and conservative position. Turkey has often been touted as a shining model of democracy in the Middle East, a nation that could act as a model for others in the region. Many have made the claim that the prominence of Erdoğan has been an insult to the historical foundations laid out by the country’s founders. However, this understanding fails to recognise the context and historical path that led Turkey down this trail.

The emergence of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not an isolated incident; the rise of the AKP and Islamist ideology did not develop in a vacuum. Turkey and Erdoğan are intrinsically linked through a century’s worth of history and political development. The story begins with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War, then moves on through the various coups of the 1960s-1980s, and finally charts its way to the rise of the AKP during the 1990s to the present. In order to understand the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one must examine the context that made his ascension possible.

Mustafa Kemal and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan banners, c. 2017.

The Rise of Mustafa Kemal

Many will point to the influence of a single primary figure, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was instrumental in rebuilding Turkey into a polity favourable to westernisation and secularism. To the West, Atatürk was a figure bordering upon deification within Turkish society, a man whose ideals permeated all sectors of life and was changing the country one day at a time. The story of Atatürk begins in the wake of the First World War. The survivors of Anatolia were struggling to rebuild from the smouldering ashes of the Ottoman Empire. A coalition of French, British, and Italian forces had surrounded the region of modern day Turkey, and each was possessed by imperial motivations. Surrounded by such imperial powers, whose presence threatened subjugation and colonisation, Mustafa Kemal found himself at the helm of a resistance movement against the invading forces. By 1919, he was able to develop an organised national resistance that would succeed in defeating the impending imperialist forces.1.George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis (Westview Press: Boulder, 1985), 55.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal declared Turkey an independent and sovereign state. Having secured the nation’s freedom, Mustafa Kemal began to set Turkey on a path of modernisation. Atatürk immediately saw a need for a radical change in Turkish cultural standards, and began advocating for state-wide secularism and adherence to Western principles to attain his goals.2.Mehran Kamrava, The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the First World War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 52. In doing so, he established himself as the central figure of the new state, and while the country was nominally set on the path of democracy, it was clear that an autocratic precedence was being set. Such points were no secret, and Atatürk was evidently cognisant of his self-ordained role as steward to the fledgling nation. A 1927 speech at the National Convention of the People’s Party of the Republic held in Ankara highlights as much. There, he declared the following:

“I may say that it fell to me to keep within my mind, as a national secret, my perception of the great capacity for progress in the soul of the nation and in its future, and to apply this vision gradually to our whole social organisation.”3.Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Speech at the National Convention of the People’s Party of the Republic” (Ankara: 1927).

Atatürk’s ability to radically alter Turkish society was a result of his success during the Turkish War of Independence.4.George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 59. Without such success, it is unlikely that he would have made such a significant impact. His policies were in direct conflict with the traditionalist elements of Turkish society, and he had blatant disregard for the opinions of those opposing him. Indeed, Atatürk had declared the Ottoman era, a period instrumental to the development of traditional Turkish society at the time, as being a “lax mentality of past centuries,” and juxtaposed this era with “the concepts of speed and movement of [Atatürk’s] century.”5.Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Atatürk’s Speech at the 10th Anniversary of the Turkish Republic,” (Ankara: 1933). To that end, Mustafa Kemal engaged in a series of reforms that were characterised by heavy amounts of repression and totalitarianism. The much-praised secular reforms were a result of government policies that “imposed rigorous discrimination against [Islam’s] practice.”6.George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 128. Atatürk closed down religious schools, limited the authority of the Islamic orthodoxy, and prohibited the practice of religion in public spaces.7.George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 128. Beyond these anti-religious principles were a series of policies that banned specific types of clothing, disenfranchised the historical educators of society, and radically overhauled the Turkish script in favour of a Latin alphabet.8.George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 57. Even more important was the fact that “although Atatürk led the establishment of the forms of parliamentary rule, he ran Turkey as an autocrat… [and] as ‘permanent’ leader of the Republican Peoples party, he manipulated access to political positions.”9.George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 59. The culmination of these factors led to a widespread, but rather silent, amount of disenfranchisement that was centred in the rural areas of Turkey, such as Central Anatolia.10.Zülküf Aydın, The Political Economy of Turkey (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 84.

Mustafa Kemal delivering a speech at the 10th Anniversary of the Turkish Republic.
Mustafa Kemal delivering a speech at the 10th Anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

“Father of Turks”

Mustafa Kemal’s hold over the military coupled with his general popularity during the post-war period meant that these displaced voices were easily stifled and had practically zero outlets with which to highlight their frustrations. Political parties and organisations that stood against Atatürk were eliminated, such as the Royalist faction of 1923 and the Progressive Republican Party of 1925.11.George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 57. Other instances of opposition were met with martial law and violence.12.Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Routing Out the Opposition: The Comprehensive Repression of Human Rights in Turkish Society (Wembley: Islamic Human Rights Commission, 2000), 5. At the same time, a secret police force not dissimilar to the Iranian SAVAK was employed in order to instil fear in dissidents, while staged trials were conducted to serve as a point of partial legitimacy for these actions.13.Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Routing Out the Opposition: The Comprehensive Repression of Human Rights in Turkish Society (Wembley: Islamic Human Rights Commission, 2000), 5. It is clear that underlying the radical changes conducted by Mustafa Kemal was a principle of autocracy and suppression that would set a precedent for the coming years.

It is important to understand that the discussion here is framed in a lens of varying perspectives. There is a reason as to why Mustafa Kemal is often referred to by his moniker of Atatürk (Father of Turks). His reformist feats were central in developing and modernising Turkey. It is also necessary to understand that the events during this period of time were in no way a zero-sum game. What is clear is that despite Mustafa Kemal’s totalitarian tendencies, his success in modernising the country helped to bolster his popular perception among the people of Turkey. Although there were many who were gravely affected and disenfranchised by his policies, Atatürk and his ideology would act as a guiding hand for the Republic of Turkey for years to come. Despite Mustafa Kemal’s death in 1938, his policies, beliefs, and ideology lingered on in the form of a faction known as the Kemalists, who found refuge in urban centres and in the military. While American commentators once noted long ago that Mustafa Kemal was dictator “so that Turkey would never again have dictators,” the precedent he set forth would prove otherwise.14.“The Incredible Turk,” (Century Fox: 1958), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW5Ub0mhYpo. The military would act as the vanguard of the Kemalist spirit and would, as history would reveal, act autocratically in order to ensure that this ideology would remain. What would ultimately emerge from this would be a faction hell-bent on preserving the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and in doing so, would further the divide that existed between Kemalists and the disenfranchised. In the following segment, a close examination of the Kemalist coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980 will help further illustrate the historical context that provided President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the opportunity to emerge as the new ideological leader of Turkey.

Edwin Tran

Edwin Tran is a geopolitical analyst focused on the Levantine region. He degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant. He specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.

References   [ + ]

1. George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis (Westview Press: Boulder, 1985), 55.
2. Mehran Kamrava, The Modern Middle East: A Political History Since the First World War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 52.
3. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Speech at the National Convention of the People’s Party of the Republic” (Ankara: 1927).
4. George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 59.
5. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Atatürk’s Speech at the 10th Anniversary of the Turkish Republic,” (Ankara: 1933).
6, 7. George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 128.
8, 11. George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 57.
9. George S. Harris, Turkey: Coping with Crisis, 59.
10. Zülküf Aydın, The Political Economy of Turkey (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 84.
12, 13. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, Routing Out the Opposition: The Comprehensive Repression of Human Rights in Turkish Society (Wembley: Islamic Human Rights Commission, 2000), 5.
14. “The Incredible Turk,” (Century Fox: 1958), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW5Ub0mhYpo.