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A Gift From God

The referendum in Turkey will likely mark the end of the Kemalist era.

On April 16 Turks will vote on constitutional changes put forward by President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and his AKP party which threaten to turn Turkey into an absolutist presidency. However, the dismantling of the republic founded by Kemal Atatürk has been long in the making.

© REUTERS/Yasin Bulbul/Presidential Palace/Handout

When Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the new nation was meant to be a beacon of secular democracy in the Middle East. But even at the country’s foundation, the seed of its current predicament was already planted: in the countryside, far from the urban centers and their Westernized elite, an undercurrent of Islamic piety remained. In the 1990s, Necmettin Erbakan seized on this opportunity and re-introduced overtly religious discourse to Turkish politics. His political successor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is now on the cusp of dismantling the country’s representative government entirely.

But the upcoming referendum will not decide the future of the country – this was already decided in December 2013. After the 19th National Education Council, the country’s educational system underwent a number of momentous changes, ensuring that future generations of Turkish citizens would be more religious and less inclined to question the country’s leadership. The leaders of Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) thus successfully laid the groundwork for bringing their policy goals within reach.

Erdogan’s goal – the dismantling of the Kemalist secular state and its replacement with a sort of Anatolian caliphate – was already clear then. Now, he will formalize his intentions through the institution of a presidential system that would end the tradition of parliamentary democracy in the country, originally introduced in 1908 by the Unionist or Young Turk regime. In its place, the AKP leadership wants to institute a pseudo-Ottoman system of absolute rule.

Eliminating a “Bureaucratic Oligarchy”

Talk of introducing a presidential system to Turkey has been around since the 1970s, when Erbakan first introduced the Turkish public to this political concept; over the subsequent decades, Turgut Özal and then Süleyman Demirel kept this discourse alive. In the 21st century, Erdogan revived this discussion to great effect, and in all likelihood next month’s popular referendum will end with his becoming an absolute president, effectively banishing Atatürk’s legacy to the dustbin of history. The “Yes” camp will probably garner between 60 and 75 percent of the popular vote, an outcome that AKP critics believe would bring an end to Turkish democracy.

But Erdogan supporters and apologist alike argue that the creation of a presidential system would merely end an undemocratic bureaucracy, one they claim has been stifling public life for the past two centuries. The AKP MP for Istanbul, Metin Külünk, spelled out the issue in early January in the Islamist newspaper Diriliş Postası. Külünk delved deep into Ottoman history and explained that the so-called “Charter of Alliance” (or Sened-i ittifak), established in 1808, had instituted a bureaucratic apparatus that since has taken over the country, adding that the constitutional change would “break the back of [this] bureaucratic oligarchy.”

It is no accident that Turkey’s Islamists re-discovered the Sened-i ittifak. Historian Rıfat Önsoy declared in 1986 that “the Charter of Alliance is a document that aimed to limit the autocracy and absolutism [of the Ottoman Sultan] … it was a historic stage in [the development of] Turkish democracy.” In other words, Turkish intellectuals and politicians adhering to Kemalist principles and democratic values have traditionally viewed the “Charter of Alliance” as a positive development that would lead ultimately to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, where Atatürk’s reforms were to liberate the population from the shackles of Islam and its restrictions.

A New Atatürk

The crackdown on freedom of expression and the persecution of journalists, writers, and academics have convinced Erdogan and AKP critics that the upcoming referendum on constitutional changes would transform Turkey into a veritable dictatorship along Islamic lines. Erdogan himself, on the other hand, declared last December that no such threat exists, saying “There is no such problem in my country. Those who want can talk as they want, live as they believe, dress as they want, [and] can drink and eat as they want, all these things are being done. We have not introduced any kind of prohibition. Turkey has never been a country of prohibitions.” Critics, both domestic and foreign, regard such a statement as a blatant lie regarding the current state of affairs in the country.

And in fact, pious Muslims and AKP supporters may wholeheartedly agree with their leader – but see that as a state of affairs in need of revision. During the Kemalist era, wide swathes of Turkey’s population regarded the lenient and permissive attitude in the country as an affront, hindering their personal and public experience of faith. Rather than greet the Kemalist Revolution as a liberation allowing them to “enjoy this world and its delights to the fullest,” these pious Turks felt Atatürk was leading the nation astray. They welcome the post-Kemalist reality in the New Turkey as heralding a hitherto unknown freedom, namely the freedom to live in accordance with the rules and regulations laid down by the Prophet.

The upcoming referendum will afford these pious men and women the opportunity to exercise real democracy, as the envisioned “presidential system” will see “the people elect the figure of an Absolute President, without the intermediary of a ‘bureaucratic oligarchy’ or an elected Chamber of Parliament.“ In this way, Erdogan will assume the reins of power from the people as a “gift from God,” allowing him to replace the figure of Atatürk in the hearts and minds of the Turkish people.