Kemalism Loses Its Grip

Nicholas Blincoe

April 2, 2008 12:00 PM

The ideology of Ataturk is fading and Turkey’s Justice and Development
party is building a more multi-ethnic country.

News that the supreme court of Turkey is to consider outlawing the
ruling party sounds worrying, but in reality, this is the last act
of a fatally wounded animal: the old guard of Turkey, who lay claim
to being the heirs of the Kemalist revolution. In an article for Cif
yesterday, Stephen Kinzer wondered if the Justice and Development party
– known as the AKP – is up for this new fight, but he should be in
no doubt. The AKP has learned that aggression pays when confronted
by this self-perpetuating elite of soldiers, secret policemen,
bureaucrats and heads of industries.

Kemalism, the political doctrine associated with Kemal Ataturk,
prides itself on being resolutely modern and western. Modern and
western-looking, that is, as long as this is 1923, when Mussolini ruled
Italy, Stalin was rising to power in Russia and Turkey’s Republican
People’s party was formed.

There is no longer anything modern about Kemalism. As a doctrine,
it is broadly socialist, with a strong emphasis on Turkish- and
state-owned industries, and big state projects like the south-east
Anatolian project.

It is also militaristic. The constitution guarantees power to the
army, while absolving it from effective oversight, resulting in an
industrial military complex almost as sclerotic as the one that has
brought Pakistan to its knees. The other feature of Kemalism is an
aggressive secularism that justifies attacks on religion by claiming
that Turkish-ness transcends and embraces all other identities. This
idea has never been accepted by the Assyrians, Arabs, Armenians,
Greeks, Jews and Kurds that form the ethnic minorities of Turkey.

Kemalism finally lost its grip in Turkey in 2002 with the ascent to
power of the AKP. But it has been a long slow death. The AKP has lived
under constant threat of coups and judicial manoeuvres. However,
leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan have served time in prison and
this seems to have cured them of all fear. Erdogan, an ex-mayor of
Istanbul, was imprisoned as recently as 1998 when his Welfare Party
was outlawed. The modernisers of the Welfare party left the Islamist
rump behind and formed the current AKP in 2001, winning the subsequent
election. Since then, the party has scored impressive successes in
the municipal elections of 2004 and the general election of 2007,
called because of the refusal of the old elite to accept the AKP’s
nomination for president, Abdullah Gul.

The case of Gul’s presidency is as good an illustration of the AKP’s
fighting instincts as any. Far from running from confrontation, the
party has looked for fights. It has used EU rulings as a stick to
beat the Kemalists. The headscarf issue, for instance, has shown the
party to be more in step with contemporary values such as freedom of
expression and freedom of religion than its rivals.

We should note, too, that the AKP has succeeded where Kemalism failed
in building a far more multi-ethnic Turkey. The municipal elections
of 2004 reduced the Republican People’s party to eight cities in the
pleasure grounds of Istanbul and Izmir. The AKP won 58 districts out
of 81 and all of the big Arab and Kurdish cities (Diyarbakir, aside)
of the south and south-east. The results show that the AKP is becoming
the first choice with Turkey’s large Kurdish and Arab minorities.

The AKP’s most daring piece of politics was to ban the state security
courts, which it did at the behest of the European Union. The courts
were key to the army’s power in Turkey. Soldiers sat alongside judges;
prosecutors were often serving officers; defence lawyers were not
permitted to directly question witnesses; and the proceedings took
place in private.

The abolition of the courts in 2004 evidently caught the military
and secret police by surprise, as they were just about to try dozens
of suspects in the attack on the British consulate of the previous
year. The trials were actually under way when the courts discovered
they no longer existed.

The AKP has a talent for picking fights, and these fights have given
it political momentum. The old guard staked their identity on a modern
Turkey, even if they had to outlaw or imprison everyone in the county
to achieve it.

The AKP is smart enough to win this latest fight with the judiciary,
and I suspect the fight will strengthen its hand as it builds a
genuinely modern, multi-ethnic Turkey.

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