This year marks a momentous occasion as Turkey celebrates one hundred years as a republic. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk proclaimed the country a republic on this day, ushering in the era of modern Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, joined the festivities and watched them from the palace of the last Ottoman monarch. Erdogan sees the year 2023 as the pinnacle of his reign and the beginning of unimaginable change.
However, Ataturk’s ideal of a secular, Westernized state is quite different from the Turkey of today. Erdogan’s detractors see the centenary as a celebration of the original republic’s longevity. For them, the republican experiment continues even as Erdogan relentlessly assaults Ataturk’s legacy.
After a century after its establishment, the republic and its significance remain essential issues in today’s politically divided Turkey. Despite portraying himself as the torchbearer of Ataturk’s vision, Erdogan has been accused of seeking to obliterate his legacy. After successfully fending off European and Russian invasion attempts, Ataturk established the country. After the Ottoman sultan surrendered to the Allies in World War I, Ataturk traveled to Anatolia, the historic home of the Turkish people, to establish a new nation.
Ataturk envisioned a Western-influenced Turkish republic that would modernize the country’s war-ravaged inhabitants. The Islamic veil was discouraged and the traditional Ottoman men’s headgear, the fez, was banned since both were considered as symbols of oppression and backwardness. The Arabic script was replaced with the Latin alphabet, and women gained the right to vote decades before it was widely implemented in Europe.
One hundred years later, Turkey has followed a different course under Erdogan, returning to its conservative origins and emerging as a major player on the international stage. When the state was more secular, it outlawed the Islamic headscarf in government institutions including schools and colleges as well as in legislative and armed forces bodies. To detractors, Erdogan’s win in the presidential elections demonstrated that despite significant disagreements, his vision for Turkey resonated with millions, and prolonged his control into a third decade.
Religion’s place inside the Turkish state and the public sphere has long been a source of contention. Islamists and devout Muslims were marginalized and punished when the military overthrew the government in 1997, leading to the prohibition of the hijab in public institutions. Erdogan’s present popularity may be gauged by the fact that many religious Turks admire him for speaking out for the powerless. Many young males in this nation use his picture as their phone’s wallpaper.
His lowly beginnings may help explain why he has become so popular. From Istanbul’s rough and tumble Kasimpasa district, “he is an everyman,” in contrast to the past presidents who “were shaped by the state’s ideology.” Professor of political science at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University, Murat Somer, told CNN that religion is often used as the basis for such reasoning. And “we know that people look to a strong leader” in times of war or calamity. And “they remain with the one they have,” Somer said, “unless they see an alternative, strong choice.”
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), a revival of Ataturk’s original political party, led the opposition alliance in May’s election. His words, “I have two major accomplishments,” are featured prominently on the website’s banner. The Republican People’s Party and the Republic of Turkey are examples.
Somer claims that Erdogan consistently portrays himself as the “real Ataturk.” Ozel, however, finds it hard to accept this parallel since Ataturk was “an unabashedly Western, secular, non-religious man.” Not only does it highlight the continued awe and respect Turks have for their republic’s founder, but it also highlights the startling similarities between Turkey’s two strongmen.
Ataturk’s leadership was described as having legitimized one-man rule by Ayse Zarakol, a professor of international affairs at the University of Cambridge. In her youth, she says, “there was a message that the country needs a single man savior.” However, Ataturk wanted his nation to be governed in a different way. The nation transitioned to a multi-party democracy in 1938, after a period of Westernization. In 2017, Turkey conducted a vote to replace its parliamentary system with a presidential one, and the change was approved. This consolidated power at the state level and removed many of the checks and balances that had previously existed over the executive branch.
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