What will become of Ataturk's legacy?

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (left) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) displayed on banners during a naval display in Istanbul
Recep Tayyip Erdogan: on a quest to go down in history as the statesman who led the Turkish Republic into its second century

A century ago, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic based on secular values. Today, many fear his vision is under threat by conservative President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

By Elmas Topcu

For weeks, secular Turks had been wondering whether the conservative Islamic government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic on 29 October. Until just a few days ago, no official programme was planned. Foreign diplomats were also rumoured to be asking one another if anyone had received an invitation.

Finally, on 20 October, Erdogan's communications department announced that there would be a series of events – in which the Erdogan era would take centre-stage. The news confirmed secular fears that Erdogan is trying to downplay the legacy of founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and, in his place, create a cult of Erdogan as the leader of an Islamist country.

Erdogan in the spotlight

The "Turkish Century" was the campaign slogan with which Erdogan won the elections again in May with his Justice and Development Party (AKP), securing his power for another five years. Already in government for more than two decades, he now wants to go down in history as the statesman who led the republic into its second century.

Beate Apelt, head of the Turkish office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, saw a lot of symbolism in the run-up to the anniversary that aimed to put Erdogan on a par with Ataturk. Apart from the using the phrase "Turkish century", large portraits of the two state leaders were exhibited side by side – the suggestion being that Ataturk may have been the initiator, but Erdogan is the clincher of a great century project, Apelt said.

A woman waves two Turkish flags bearing Ataturk's likeness in front of his mausoleum in Anitkabir
A Westernised, modern and secular republic: Ataturk undertook a number of major reforms in just a few years. He had the Arabic alphabet exchanged for the Latin alphabet, adopted Western codes of law and introduced women's suffrage (image: Evrim Aydin/Anadolu)

In recent weeks she observed growing resentment among Turks that the anniversary of their country not only lacked the suitable pomp, but that many of the events were being associated with religious elements. This is "certainly not in Ataturk's spirit either," she said, explaining that he introduced the clear separation of religion and state. Ataturk also abolished religious brotherhoods and the caliphate in the name of secularism – one reason Islamists still harbour bitterness toward him today.

Erdogan, by contrast, has supported such religious groups since he came to power, granting them many privileges. He also never speaks Ataturk's full name. Instead, it is always "veteran Mustafa Kemal". Perhaps that's because "Ataturk" means "forefather of the Turks", a concept that Erdogan is widely seen to reject. Ataturk's liberal private life, which included relationships with several women and the consumption of alcohol, is also despised in AKP circles.

Conflicting visions for Turkey

Ataturk dreamed of a Westernised, modern and secular republic, undertaking a number of major reforms in just a few years. He had the Arabic alphabet exchanged for the Latin alphabet, adopted Western codes of law and introduced women's suffrage. A new hat law saw people abandon Ottoman religious headgear such as the fez or turban in favour of styles from London, Berlin and Paris.

Ataturk's long-term goal was also to forge a Turkish nation from the ruins of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. This has only been partially fulfilled, as major disputes continue among minorities such as the Armenians, Alevis and Kurds. The armed conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) alone has killed nearly 40,000 people since 1984.

While today these reforms are often associated with Ataturk, they were secondary at the time, said Salim Cevik, a Turkey expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. Following defeat in World War I, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the gruelling war of liberation against the victorious powers, Ataturk and his followers had only one goal: to save the remaining state entity from complete decline and establish a strong republic that could withstand any attack, both foreign and domestic.

"And for the most part they succeeded," Cevik said. Over the past century, the Turkish state has grown into a strong regional power whose existence is not questioned or threatened from the outside. Through its membership in NATO or other alliances, it is also now a firm part of the international political system.

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Ankara is a key regional interlocutor

"Turkey is an important player especially in the space between Europe and the Middle East," said Apelt of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an organisation close to Germany's neoliberal Free Democratic Party.

This is due to its geostrategic position as a NATO state between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, with control over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. Equally important, she said, is its central location between the European Union, Black Sea rival Russia and the extremely problematic region to the southeast along the borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Erdogan has skilfully exploited this status in recent years, offering himself as a middleman between regional conflicts, Apelt said – for example, between Ukraine and Russia or currently between Israel and Hamas. In her opinion, Erdogan has the opportunity to play a constructive role here, as he did with the grain agreement for Ukraine.

Erdogan has also simultaneously tried to extract the maximum benefit for himself and Turkey from every constellation. The most recent example was blocking Sweden's NATO accession and tying his pledge to Turkey's resumption of accession negotiations with the European Union, Apelt said.

She also sees the country playing an important role in relation to irregular migration to Europe, despite the controversial 2016 refugee Turkey-EU deal, under which refugees in Turkey were to be prevented from continuing on to the EU. Still, this matter is likely to be more difficult to manage in the future. Acceptance of refugees from Syria and elsewhere has declined massively amid economic troubles for Turkey in recent years, causing a spike in discrimination against these populations, she said.

Elmas Topcu

© Deutsche Welle 2023