ANKARA – For years, experts have debated whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a comparable figure to founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in terms of his significance and impact on modern Turkey.
Atatürk managed to rally Turkish forces to remove foreign powers from the Anatolian peninsula in the aftermath of World War I and shaped the newly born Turkish Republic in 1923 according to his secular, Westernizing vision, and is still venerated in Turkey. He is described as the “immortal leader and unrivaled hero” in the preamble to the Turkish Constitution.
But with Sunday’s victory in both the presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdogan has now arguably achieved the same degree of control and power as Atatürk managed nearly a century ago – especially with the reform that turns Turkey into a presidential system now taking effect.
In March, Erdogan overtook Atatürk as Turkey’s longest-serving leader (the latter died on his 5,492nd day in office). The president’s supporters already worship him like a god. Moreover, he has been shaping Turkish society over the past 16 years in a way like no other Turkish leader since Atatürk’s reign ended in 1938.
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Erdogan knows the historical significance of his persona, and is aware that Atatürk is the only political figure who can rival it. He also understands how his attempts to turn Turkey into a more conservative, religious democracy are diametrically opposed to Atatürk’s principles of strict secularism and vision of a “Western” Turkey.
It is no wonder, then, that for the past decade, Erdogan has been obsessed with the year 2023, when Turkey celebrates 100 years since the establishment of the Republic. His rhetoric about a “New Turkey” – by which he means an economically successful state that has broken free of what he sees as the shackles of repressive secularism – has the centenary as its symbolic target. And, of course, Erdogan has long coveted reaching the year 2023 in power, thus presenting himself as the “founding father” of the “New Turkey” while the country is celebrating Atatürk, the hero of the Turkish War of Independence.
Reaching 2023 as Turkey’s leader while achieving the objectives of his so-called “2023 Political Vision” would, to Erdogan’s mind, mean surpassing Turkey’s founding father once and for all. And Sunday’s victory, in which he claimed his second five-year term as president, means Erdogan’s dream of still being leader in five years’ time will likely be fulfilled.
Last year, as Turkey celebrated the first anniversary of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt, government propaganda described the event as a “second war of independence,” in which Erdogan had managed to protect the nation “from the invasion of foreign powers.”
Of course, the two events have little, if anything, in common. In the 1919-1923 War of Independence, Atatürk rallied local forces to foil land grabs from European powers in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In the summer of 2016, a section of the Turkish military, which the government accused of being controlled by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, failed in its attempt to overthrow the government.
Erdogan later called the coup “a gift from God” – a comment that observers understood to refer to the opportunity it gave him to go after members of Gülen’s movement. But Erdogan likely also saw it as a chance to boost his historical standing. This explains why the narrative of the “second war of independence,” of the victory against “foreign, occupying forces” during the night of the coup was quickly promoted by the government and its obliging press. On the coup’s first anniversary, the state offered hundreds of overseas journalists luxury trips to Turkey to hear the story firsthand.
With the opposition now in tatters and unable to truly challenge the government given the lack of a strong democratic environment – much like during the Atatürk years – Erdogan will be able to keep pursuing his “revolution from above” in the years to come.
According to Soner Cagaptay – who last year published a biography called “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey” – while Erdogan and Atatürk “are not comparable from the point of view of their ideologies, they are very close in terms of their methods. They both pursue their cultural revolution with Jacobin policies, top-down social engineering and a focus on education.”
Indeed, Erdogan has pledged to raise a “pious generation” and boosted religious teaching in Turkey’s education system. And schools commemorated the failed coup by espousing Erdogan’s narrative.
Michelangelo Guida, head of the political science department at Istanbul 29 Mayis University, noted after the election results were announced that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is “clearly winning the Kulturkampf against the opposition.” He added that the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP) – itself the party of Atatürk – “remains completely marginal in regions such as the southeast, the Black Sea and central Anatolia.”
While AKP officials cannot afford to voice explicit criticism against Turkey’s founding father, and are also obliged several times a year to visit the gigantic Ankara mausoleum where Atatürk is buried, their creeping hostility toward a leader whom they consider to have repressed religious freedom is no secret in Turkey.
After being elected president in 2014, Erdogan ordered that a vast, 1,000-room palace be built in the middle of the Atatürk Forest Farm, an area that the founding father had conceived as a green park where building was prohibited. Erdogan defied judicial rulings against his project with a simple defiant message: “Let them knock it down if they have the power.” The $615 million AK Saray (whose name, meaning “white” or “pure” palace, also alludes to Erdogan’s own party), was a symbolic blow to Atatürk’s legacy.
As Election Day drew to a close in Ankara on Sunday night, CHP officials looked on from the terrace of their party’s headquarters as Erdogan’s supporters celebrated in the streets below. Most honked car horns and paraded Turkish flags as they drove by, speakers blaring pro-Erdogan songs. Some on the losing side wept. At around 10:15 P.M., an announcement by CHP spokesman Bülent Tezcan – who claimed that the state-run Anadolu Agency was releasing misleading results – cheered up opposition supporters, who started chanting the pro-Atatürk “Izmir March.” But soon afterward, Erdogan declared victory and CHP members headed home in silence, through the cheering pro-Erdogan crowds. Their song sounded like a relic from history as the “New Turkey” crowned its own founding father.