100 years ago – on November 1, 1922 – the Chairman of the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, officially abolished the Ottoman Sultanate. Thus ended a monarchy whose origins stretched back to 1299. The Ottoman Empire was replaced by a new state, the Republic of Türkiye, which was based on completely different political principles and a modern ideology. But nothing lasts forever: 100 years later, another charismatic leader has arisen who shows by his deeds that he does not take the legacy of the iconic leader Ataturk as gospel.
So, how far has Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Türkiye ventured from Kemalism?
Rebuilding From Scratch
On October 30, 1918, an agreement was signed aboard the British warship Agamemnon in the port of Mudros on the Island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea, which officially ended the Ottoman Empire’s participation in the First World War. It had fought on the side of Germany and Austria and had suffered total defeat. Without the consent of the other members of the Entente, the British imposed hard conditions that entailed the loss of vast territory, occupation of its remaining lands, and the transfer of a significant quantity of its resources to the victors. The power of Sultan Mehmed VI was de facto reduced to fulfilling the will of the occupiers.
Just four years later, on November 1, 1922, the monarchy came to an end. The empire would be replaced by a new state, the Republic of Türkiye, headed by Mustafa Kemal, who would receive the surname Ataturk (‘Father of the Turks’ or ‘Great Turk’) from parliament in 1934.
Soviet Russia provided Ataturk with great assistance in liberating the nation. In 1921, the parties signed a friendship treaty in Moscow, after which Türkiye settled problems with the Soviet Transcaucasian republics. This allowed Ataturk to focus on the war with Greece, during which the Bolsheviks helped the Turks with finances, weapons, and even food, despite famine in their own country.
Winning this war was a turning point in preserving Türkiye’s independence, which allowed it to move forward to a new stage in its history. On October 29, 1923, the founding of the Republic of Türkiye was officially declared, which Ataturk deliberately built as the antithesis of the Ottoman Empire. Kemalism is based on six principles (or ‘six arrows’, as they say in Türkiye). The first four arrows were formulated in 1927, and two more were added in 1931. The six arrows doctrine was finally enshrined in the Constitution of 1937. These six principles are as follows: republicanism, populism, nationalism, laicism (secularism), statism (state regulation), and reformism.
Ataturk and Erdogan
In modern Türkiye, Ataturk is still universally revered as a military commander who saved the country’s independence, as well as a great reformer. But the course of the current president’s term in office points to a deep rethinking of the legacy of the founder of the modern state that, nevertheless, never quite crosses Ataturk’s red lines.
Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), told RT that, in today’s Türkiye, the principles of Kemalism are strictly adhered to by the opposition, but not the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“On the one hand, Erdogan takes a critical approach to Ataturk. He doesn’t emphasize his principles but still acknowledges his merits as a leader. And symbolic veneration for Ataturk remains: there are nearly more monuments to him and portraits of him in Türkiye now than there were dedicated to Lenin in the USSR. So, it’s clear that Erdogan cannot insult Ataturk. Moreover, the Constitution provides for prison terms for people who do this. However, Erdogan did call Kemal a drunkard once, albeit, without mentioning his name. It is true that Ataturk died of cirrhosis of the liver,” he says.
Amur Hajiyev, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies, agreed that, while Erdogan does not officially reject Ataturk’s legacy, he still frames him in the broader context of Turkish history.
“There are 16 stars on the emblem of the President of Türkiye, which represent the 16 states in Turkic history. Erdogan positions modern Türkiyeas a continuation of those traditions. In this context, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, of course, plays a significant role in the history of Turkish statehood.
Erdogan is not on a mission to eradicate Ataturk’s legacy. He thinks something along the lines of: ‘We had the Ottoman Empire, then the First World War, after which a new republican Türkiye was born. And if at that time, the ideas proclaimed by Kemal were in step with the times, they no longer are today. It’s just that times have changed. We need to react to this and, if necessary, add new provisions.’ There is no culture intent on abolishing Ataturk and Kemalism here, despite the fact that its adherents now represent the main opposition force,” the analyst told RT.
Nadein-Rayevsky points out that the Republican People’s Party, which is currently in opposition, was created by Ataturk. However, even during his lifetime, its influence gradually began to wane. This ultimately resulted in the victory of the Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections of 1950, after which an attempt was made to revive Islamism. This movement was short-lived, however, as it was suppressed by the military with the help of a coup in 1960, the researcher explained.
“In the following years, Islamists were alternately permitted and banned in Türkiye. In 1983, the Islamist Welfare Party was created, from which Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party emerged. The current president started his political career as the head of the youth branch in Istanbul,” the expert said.
According to Hajiyev, the Republican People’s Party does not shy away from revising some of Ataturk’s principles. Its current leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has talked about the need to give women the legal right to wear a hijab – a complete anathema to Kemalist ideology.
Erdogan’s obvious support of religion in the secular state is perhaps the most noticeable departure from Ataturk’s legacy.
Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky explains that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s lifelong mission was to separate the state from religion, seeking to achieve freedom of thought and independence from religious influence in all aspects of public life:
“Ataturk banned the fez which had become a symbol of tradition, as well as discouraged women from wearing chadors and burkas. All the symbols of the past were burned in public. Ataturk’s influence was huge; people listened to him. He made the Turks wear European clothes. His greatest achievement was getting rid of the waqf, a system of inalienable donations for religious or charitable purposes, and seizing the religious institution’s capital. This way, he cut off the mosques from financial support. It was extremely important. After that, Ataturk banned any form of religious interference in politics; propaganda of the Ottoman Caliphate was punishable with jail time.”
The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, originally built as a Christian cathedral called the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Kemal Ataturk’s reforms – in 1934, he made it into a museum to show that Türkiye was now free of the heavy Islamic burden of the Ottoman past.
However, in 2020, Hagia Sophia re-opened for worship once again, with the attendance of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who justified his decision by saying that the nation required this change. Although the move was criticized by UNESCO, the European Union, the World Council of Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the Russian Orthodox Church, it didn’t stop President Erdogan from personally reciting from the Koran inside the mosque as part of the opening ceremony on July 24, 2020.
In 2021, in another symbolic move, President Erdogan opened a new landmark mosque in Taksim Square, an area that for a long time had remained a religion-free hub in Istanbul.
According to Gajiev, officially, the current government does not steer much from the track of Ataturk’s reforms and Türkiye remains a secular state granting its citizens complete freedom of faith. Also, the Directorate of Religious Affairs established by Kemal Ataturk in 1924 is still in place and functioning.
And yet, the situation on the ground indicates that a slow Islamization is underway in Türkiye, and that there is a certain demand for it in society. Even after secularization, many Turks continued to go to mosques or pray at home, including those who did not consider themselves religious.
“The only difference was, they no longer prayed five times a day, but once or twice. The popularity of religion has been growing, which is why smaller towns and villages are these days great supporters of Erdogan. In large cities, the population mostly sides with Erdogan’s opposition, such as the Kemalist Republican People’s Party and others,” expands Nadein-Rayevsky.
For the past 20 years, Türkiye has been under conservative rule leaning more towards traditional rather than progressive values.
As Amur Gajiev sums it up, “There’s no saying that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party upholds political Islam, although ideologically, they do tend to be rather in opposition to Kemal’s legacy. However, in terms of the pace of these processes, it makes more sense to speak of evolution rather than revolution.”
How many of Ataturk’s arrows have reached Erdogan?
One of Kemal Ataturk’s founding principles that is not fully adhered to by present-day Türkiye is etatism (from French état, or state) which asserts the state’s right to determine the societal structure and social life, as well as to interfere with and control the state’s economy. During the early days of the Turkish Republic, the government bankrolled a lot of industrial projects through the system of state-owned banks due to the absence of strong private businesses.
According to Gajiev, a lot of businesses in Türkiye were privatized between 1983 and 1991 when Turgut Ozal was prime minister and then president of Türkiye. “It was then that Türkiye became largely a free market economy, and etatism became the thing of the past,” he said.
At the same time, as Nadein-Rayevsky points out, state involvement in business is still massive, as it continues to own a lot of the country’s assets and enterprises, such as ore mines.
“The country’s finances are managed by the Central Bank of Türkiye which saw four different people at its helm in just two years because Erdogan keeps pressuring them to lower the key interest rate,” the expert noted.
Gajiev believes that one might argue that etatism is still there, though mainly as part of the overall concept of Türkiye as a nation-state.
“The Turks have always been proud of their nation. Today, they believe that Türkiye deserves more and want it to become one of the centers of the multipolar world,” he explained.
The principle of reformism that sought to change Türkiye into a modern state through westernization during Ataturk’s time isn’t perceived as the cornerstone of the state’s policy anymore.
Gajiev observes: “Today, both the society at large and establishment rather believe that modernization does not require westernization – especially now that the EU-Türkiye relationship is in pretty much ‘freeze’ mode and the country is not likely to join the European space any time soon. So Türkiye is drifting away from this principle.”
The remaining three principles (or ‘arrows’) of ‘Ataturkism,’ i.e., republicanism, populism (with its objective of building a true populist state), and sovereignty (“sovereignty belongs to people unconditionally”) are, in the experts’ opinions, pretty much still at work in Türkiye even now, in the 21st century.
Who will stop the sultan?
2023 is bound to mark an important milestone that will determine Türkiye’s future development through presidential and parliamentary elections. After the republic’s constitution was amended in 2017, current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan gets yet another chance to run for office after being the country’s prime minister and president for two decades.
Analysts say that this time, Erdogan might lose the presidential race – and most likely to the Kemalists. A lot will depend on the candidate who is yet to be put forward by the opposition alliance that counts six parties. Two big arguments against the 68-year-old Erdogan for many people now are the Kurdish issue and skyrocketing inflation.
Still, President Erdogan is full of ambition. On October 29, 2022, in his speech timed to the 99 years since the foundation of the republic, he shared his vision for Türkiye’s future for the next century and promised the nation a new constitution. Among other things, he mentioned protecting the rights of women who wish to wear headscarves for religious reasons, as well as protecting family values against the “threat posed by perverted movements” (which most likely involves cracking down on the LGBTQ+ movement).
“Erdogan believes that Kemalism is no longer relevant, which is why he proposes adopting a new constitution in 2023 to capture new founding principles for the state,” concluded Gajiev.