Kemalism is dead

NEWS that the supreme court of Turkey is to consider outlawing the ruling party sounds worrying, but in reality, this is the last act of a fatally wounded animal: the old guard of Turkey, who lay claim to being the heirs of the Kemalist revolution.

By Nicholas Blincoe (Turkey)

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Published: Thu 3 Apr 2008, 8:48 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:10 PM

In an article for Cif yesterday, Stephen Kinzer wondered if the Justice and Development party -- known as the AKP -- is up for this new fight, but he should be in no doubt. The AKP has learned that aggression pays when confronted by this self-perpetuating elite of soldiers, secret policemen, bureaucrats and heads of industries.

Kemalism, the political doctrine associated with Kemal Ataturk, prides itself on being resolutely modern and western. Modern and western-looking, that is, as long as this is 1923, when Mussolini ruled Italy, Stalin was rising to power in Russia and Turkey's Republican People's party was formed.

There is no longer anything modern about Kemalism. As a doctrine, it is broadly socialist, with a strong emphasis on Turkish -- and state-owned industries, and big state projects like the south-east Anatolian project.

It is also militaristic. The constitution guarantees power to the army, while absolving it from effective oversight, resulting in an industrial military complex almost as sclerotic as the one that has brought Pakistan to its knees. The other feature of Kemalism is an aggressive secularism that justifies attacks on religion by claiming that Turkish-ness transcends and embraces all other identities. This idea has never been accepted by the Assyrians, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Kurds that form the ethnic minorities of Turkey.

Kemalism finally lost its grip in Turkey in 2002 with the ascent to power of the AKP. But it has been a long slow death. The AKP has lived under constant threat of coups and judicial manoeuvres. However, leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan have served time in prison and this seems to have cured them of all fear. Erdogan, an ex-mayor of Istanbul, was imprisoned as recently as 1998 when his Welfare Party was outlawed. The modernisers of the Welfare party left the Islamist rump behind and formed the current AKP in 2001, winning the subsequent election. Since then, the party has scored impressive successes in the municipal elections of 2004 and the general election of 2007, called because of the refusal of the old elite to accept the AKP's nomination for president, Abdullah G¸l.

The case of G¸l's presidency is as good an illustration of the AKP's fighting instincts as any. Far from running from confrontation, the party has looked for fights. It has used EU rulings as a stick to beat the Kemalists. The headscarf issue, for instance, has shown the party to be more in step with contemporary values such as freedom of expression and freedom of religion than its rivals. We should note, too, that the AKP has succeeded where Kemalism failed in building a far more multi-ethnic Turkey.

The municipal elections of 2004 reduced the Republican People's party to eight cities in the pleasure grounds of Istanbul and Izmir. The AKP won 58 districts out of 81 and all of the big Arab and Kurdish cities of the south and south-east. The results show that the AKP is becoming the first choice with Turkey's large Kurdish and Arab minorities.

The AKP's most daring piece of politics was to ban the state security courts, which it did at the behest of the European Union. The courts were key to the army's power in Turkey. Soldiers sat alongside judges; prosecutors were often serving officers; defence lawyers were not permitted to directly question witnesses; and the proceedings took place in private. The abolition of the courts in 2004 evidently caught the military and secret police by surprise. The AKP has a talent for picking fights, and these fights have given it political momentum. The old guard staked their identity on a modern Turkey, even if they had to outlaw or imprison everyone in the county to achieve it. The AKP is smart enough to win this latest fight with the judiciary, and I suspect the fight will strengthen its hand as it builds a genuinely modern, multi-ethnic Turkey.

Guardian News Service

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