If there is a place in Turkey where Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the swaggering six-foot president, looks small it is at the tomb of the nation’s founder. Anitkabir, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s mausoleum, spreads over 185 acres in the heart of the capital Ankara. It is a monument to nationalism, towering modernism and the man who dismantled the Ottoman Empire and then rebuilt it as a nation state. Erdogan has made little secret of his distaste for elements of Ataturk’s project – particularly its staunch secularism – since he first rose to political prominence as mayor of Istanbul in the mid-1990s. Yet since 2003, as prime minister and then president, he has been obliged to visit Anitkabir several times a year on Turkey’s national holidays to publicly pay his respects to his biggest rival.
Observers, though, question for how much longer he will feel the need to demonstrate deference. No matter their feelings about Erdogan, no Turk will deny that he is already the only leader to come close to Ataturk in the extent to which he has changed the country. In his fifteen years at the top, he has shifted the balance of power between the politicians and the military, empowered the long-oppressed conservative poor, and presided over Turkey’s rise from a nation crippled by hyper-inflation to a bona-fide middle income country.
Today – Tuesday 27th March, 2018 – marks another key moment. Erdogan has now been in power for fifteen years and twelve days, exactly the same length of time as Ataturk spent as president of the country from the foundation of the Republic in 1923 to his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1938. Last year Erdogan won a referendum – albeit controversially – that will allow him to change the constitution to that of an executive presidency. It re-enshrines the power that he has continued to wield in practise, although not on paper, since he resigned as prime minister to run for the presidency. His opponents are horrified. It could see Erdogan remain in power for a further ten years. If that happens, they say, he will unravel Ataturk’s secular state entirely.
The president’s authoritarian turn is undeniable, although analysts endlessly debate what prompted it and when. He has muzzled the media, and it is now almost impossible to find dissenting voices within his party. Yet he is also a politician who has built his strength on pure populism: without the support of the masses he is nothing, and he knows it. That is why he remains desperate to keep winning at the ballot box.
Presidential elections are scheduled for November 2019, although it looks increasingly likely that they will be called early. Erdogan’s personal popularity currently hangs below fifty per cent, and he has forged an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Movement Party in a bid to take him over the threshold. His recent war in the Kurdish town of Afrin in northern Syria has proved nectar to the nationalists; an opinion poll last month showed that support for the operation is running at 90 per cent in Turkey. Funerals of Turkish soldiers killed in combat have turned into huge public affairs where thousands turn out. Across the country, business owners have strung up banners printed with images of gun-toting soldiers, the Turkish flag, and slogans in support of the troops. The news is dominated by jingoistic headlines and Turks who dare to criticise the operation are arrested. From the podiums, Erdogan’s rhetoric is filled with bombast, tirades against the West, and God.
It has become fashionable, especially outside Turkey, to yearn for the days when the Kemalists – the devoted followers of Ataturk – were in charge. In the Western imagination, that was a time of secularism, democracy and openness in Turkey. But during a visit to Anitkabir last week, I was struck by how much of the adjoining museum is dedicated to Ataturk’s independence war against the Greeks and the extent to which they are still presented as the enemy. There are whole sections dedicated to explaining the atrocities committed by Greek soldiers against Turkish civilians, accompanied by graphic photos. Little wonder that the enmity against the neighbours still burns strong almost a century on.
What’s more, even if Erdogan were to leave power tomorrow Turkey will never be the same. In some ways it is more democratic, even if his critics don’t like to admit it. One diplomat who was posted here shortly after the 1980 coup said it was unimaginable that the people would have taken to the streets to oppose it, as they did during the putsch of 2016. And for the masses who make up Erdogan’s fanbase, having their man in charge has meant they are able to access universities and public office for the first time (women were not allowed to wear the headscarf in either until the last decade).
Perhaps the biggest democratic problem in today’s Turkey is the lack of a credible opposition. For almost two decades, the old secular elite – represented by the CHP, the party that Ataturk founded – have flailed and failed to find ways to wrest control of the political narrative from Erdogan. The CHP’s leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has joined in with the jingoism on Afrin. Otherwise, his tactic is to criticise Erdogan rather than come up with policies of his own.
“Who’s getting ready for the elections? Making preparations? Working ten hours a day? Touring the provinces? Making alliances? Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” one insider told me.
“Who else is doing that? No-one.”