‘One day my mortal body will turn to dust, but the Turkish Republic will stand forever,’ said Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern nation. As such he is rewarded a special place in Turkish history as the ‘father of the Turks’. Indeed this is what Ataturk, the surname he was given by the people, means. And it’s impossible to be in Turkey without seeing his image wherever you go. His face adorns the currency, both paper and coinage, it’s engraved on plaques, printed on flags, statues celebrating the man are too numerous to count, there is even a shop in Istanbul which has one item on its inventory, gold laminated Ataturk masks. The man is an icon to Turks. He is Turkey and Turkey is him. But for how much longer?
Ataturk’s vision was to reform the crumbling ruins of the former Ottoman Empire into a western-orientated, secular nation-state that embraced democracy and science over ‘superstition’. Much of his vision was realised. Turkey has become a powerful player on the world stage, it has had free and fair elections, it is a country of innovation. But it is also a country which appears to be diverting onto a new path. One much more familiar to the Ottoman Empire Ataturk so despised.
The new self-styling father of the nation is the one forging that course and he couldn’t be more at odds with Ataturk if he tried. For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a man with a vision of a state that has religion at its core, while democracy is being unpicked at the hem and it seems nobody can stop him. Since the botched 15 July coup he also appears to have the support of a wide-spectrum of political and public will to do as he so wishes. The State of Emergency legislation passed in the aftermath enshrines that in law. The balance of power has been tipped and poured firmly in his direction, something Erdogan has desired for years.
His party, the ruling AKP, has been in power since 2002. When formed it styled itself as pro-western. It embraced a liberal market economy and hinted loudly to the European Union that it desired membership for Turkey. Under its hegemony the country has had an economic growth-spurt, and it has spread its financial tentacles around the globe. On the face of it, AKP has been good — if not great — for Turkey economically. Sadly, that may be the only positive.
Human rights organisations have repeatedly criticised Turkey. Since the failed-coup there is even more concern. Tens of thousands of people have been suspended or sacked from their jobs, detained, arrested and had their passports cancelled. Suspects can now be held for up to 30 days without charge, and many have had confessions beaten out of them. Meanwhile the President hosts drinks receptions (non-alcoholic of course) for the leaders of two of the opposition parties, where they all pander to his every whim. With the exception of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) there is no vocal opposition. They too may soon be voiceless.
Erodgan wants the Presidency to have executive powers, as in the USA, yet to do so needed a two-thirds majority in Parliament. He had hoped following elections in June 2015 that this would be achievable, but the HDP put a chink in his armour gaining seats for the first time. Suddenly his dream looked like it was slipping and we had a first glimpse of how ruthless Erdogan is. Military operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which the government says is directly linked to the HDP, became more pronounced and a ceasefire in place since 2013, unraveled. Attacks, blamed by the government on the PKK spurred a demand for fresh, more conclusive elections. This time around AKP managed to scrape a majority. Still not enough though for those executive powers to be passed without support, which just wasn’t there.
Next terrorism was re-defined. Journalists suddenly found themselves wondering what that meant. Could they too be accused for simply calling into question government policy? Yes, as it turned out. Newspapers which had been critical of Erdogan were taken-over, academics were arrested and finally legislation that gave MPs legal immunity was removed. Pro-Kurdish MPs (the HDP) could now face trial, an easy way of removing them and replacing them with more government friendly faces. Then all of Erdogan’s cards fell into place on the night of 15 July.
An attempted coup was ‘thwarted by the people’. The man urging them to lead the charge was Erdogan – via FaceTime. How very modern. ‘Take to the streets every night,’ he demanded of them. They did and people power ‘quashed the coup’. Rallies transformed into parties, flags turned cities into a sea of red and the country channeled the spirit of Gallipoli in 1915; the year a soldier by the name of Mustafa Kemal, began his rise to prominence.
The Gallipoli campaign is known by the West as Winston Churchill’s World War disaster and for the volume of its casualties. In Turkey, it’s the battle they won under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal and it sowed the seeds for a new chapter in Turkish history. Emotion is a mighty power; Erdogan knows this. The idea of Ataturk, as he later became, stirs the soul of every Turkish person I have ever met.
At rallies across the country images of that victory have been played out on giant screens. Erdogan has peppered his speeches with references to Ataturk. He has unashamedly suggested that defeating the coup is like ‘their Gallipoli’, sparking a frenzy of devotion to the President he had only previously seen from his own ranks.
What is even more noticeable is how alongside images of Ataturk, there are now those of Erdogan. The coup has enabled him to make his biggest play yet, removing the idea of Ataturk as the nation’s sole father. By doing this, he can harness that emotion and claim all he does is for the Turkish nation, his children. He can eradicate the western-orientated vision for Turkey, turning instead East, towards an Islamic Republic, where his heart truly lies. Ataturk was right about one thing, his body has turned to dust, but so to have the foundations of his Republic.
Rose Asani is a journalist based in Istanbul