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Turkey’s secularists need to stop hiding behind Ataturk

The secular elite Ataturk left behind are not angry at a weakening democracy but that Erdogan will bury his political and ideological tyranny

In the run-up to Turkey’s historical referendum this past Sunday on whether or not to accept, among other things, a change from a parliamentary to a presidential system, many of Turkey’s secularist and nationalist opposition were invoking modern Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as a rallying call.

According to these voices, Ataturk’s vision for a secular, democratic state is at risk of being destroyed by 'Islamist' President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will adopt an authoritarian method of rule to impose his anti-Kemalist political agenda.

However, such thinking is not only false and inaccurate, but it also masks a more nefarious political agenda of attacking Erdogan by using a voiceless idol like Ataturk as a weapon to oppose the now-passed constitutional amendments.

Ataturk’s one-man, one-party system

Now an almost mythical figure in Turkey, Mustafa Kemal led the Turkish War of Independence in 1919 following the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and its defeat in the First World War.

After he led his countrymen to victory, securing Turkey against European colonialism and serving as the first president of the new republic founded in 1923, parliament granted him the surname Ataturk. Meaning "Father of the Turks", the name was meant to recognise his role as the founding father of Turkey just four years before his death in 1938.

While there can be no doubt that Ataturk was a man of uncommon leadership skills and military prowess, the lionisation and hagiography of the man himself, both domestically in Turkey and, more recently, internationally as a foil to Erdogan’s perceived Islamism, has led to the obfuscation of the realities of life under his rule, and how he governed.

Ataturk presided over a system that, far from being a pluralistic, open and liberal democracy, ensconced him as an executive president with the power to appoint his own prime minister – ironically similar to the Ottoman grand vizier system that he abolished. The prime minister, in turn, presided over a parliament dominated by a single party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is the main opposition against Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) today.

Ataturk thus created an environment in which an anti-Islam, illiberal and decidedly undemocratic secular elite dominated not only the political halls of power, but also the ranks of the military from which Ataturk had started his career.

The more democratic choice

The constitution that was amended in Sunday’s vote was actually instituted by a junta in 1982, following a putsch led by the Kemalist military dictator general Kenan Evren which ousted the coalition government of 1980 following years of instability and insecurity.

Arguably, a civilian government amending a constitution imposed by a military regime was a decidedly more democratic choice than simply leaving it there

Arguably, a civilian government amending a constitution imposed by a military regime was a decidedly more democratic choice than simply leaving it there. After the clear risks to democracy demonstrated during the botched coup last year, keeping the constitution in place risked the country's internal stability.

By restoring Turkey to an executive presidential system, Erdogan has not trampled over Ataturk’s legacy but has, in fact, come closest to restoring his style of governance. The main difference being, of course, that Erdogan has never advocated a one-man, one-party system like Ataturk, but seems on track to establishing a multi-party presidential system.

Erdogan clearly opposes Ataturk’s ideology and political vision. Is that such a bad thing considering the tyranny of previous Kemalist governments and regimes? People conflating secularism with liberal democracy appear to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick – take communism under Stalin and Mao for an example of murderous secularism – and need to acknowledge that while Erdogan differs from Ataturk ideologically, he has come closest to restoring his governance legacy while keeping it open to a popular vote. It would be hypocritical of Kemalists to label that as dictatorial without smearing their own founding father and idol.

Secular but not democrats

Say what you like about Erdogan and the AKP – and there is a lot to be said – there is no doubt that they win almost every single election and plebiscite with a majority, if not a plurality, of the votes.

Since 2002, both he and his party have delivered a substantially enhanced economy, and opened up the freedoms long denied to the predominantly conservative Turkish populace. This includes not only allowing women to wear the hijab while holding public jobs, but also granting rights to the Kurdish population to communicate and be educated in private schools in their own language – all of which was banned under the illiberal secular elite that preceded them. It is no wonder that the largest share of Kurdish votes go to the AKP, and not the pro-Kurdish separatist People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Democracy is about more than just votes, and there are many problems with the constitutional amendments. Principally, parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on the same day, which means that there is a high chance that parliament will be dominated by the party from which the president hails. Crucially, the president will also be allowed to remain leader of that party, which means that there is very little chance that the simple majority parliamentary vote to impeach the now criminally liable president would be able to pass.

Burying Ataturk's tyranny

However, that does not mean Turkey has become an outright dictatorship. The AKP and Erdogan will be acutely aware of the fact that it lost the vote of the urban conservative base in Istanbul, as well as in the two other biggest cities of Ankara and Izmir, where the majority of Turkey’s economic and intellectual output is produced.

The narrow 'Yes' victory means that they will have to rethink their strategy if they hope for long-term success, and perhaps suggest concessions to the opposition of some of the more contentious problems with the amendments. After all, Erdogan still has to win the 2019 election to be able to use the new presidential powers.

As one nationalist anti-AKP academic conceded to me a day before the referendum vote: “In Turkey, the opposition are only democrats when they’re in opposition. If they were in power, they would be doing the same as Erdogan.”

If the Kemalist legacy is anything to go by, then this statement is perhaps one of the most poignant with regard to the referendum result. Ataturk is long gone and the secular elite he left behind as his inheritors are now angry, not at the weakening of democracy, but that a greatly empowered Erdogan will bury Ataturk’s political and ideological tyranny over a predominantly conservative Turkish society once and for all.

- Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy Security Institute, and winner of the Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. He blogs at and tweets from @thewarjournal

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A boy is wrapped in a flag of the founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Taksim square on 17 July 2016, following a failed coup attempt (AFP)

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