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The Rise (and fall) of ‘anti-Ataturk’

Published 14 Apr 2019
Nicholas Conomos

According to unofficial results, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidates, including ex-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, failed to win the mayoralties of Turkey’s two largest cities (Istanbul and Ankara) in municipal elections on Sunday 31 March. These electorates were won by Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidates, the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Given that the third largest city (Izmir) is also held by the CHP, the results highlight the emergence of an invigorated opposition to Erdogan’s seemingly perpetual autarchic control of the Turkish political system for the past 15 years. Erdogan’s ordinarily effective strategy of appealing to religion and nationalism appears to have failed in securing an electoral victory on this occasion, given the effects of a developing economic recession on voters. The election also showcases a division between progressive urbanite and conservative rural support for President Erdogan and the AKP, though as of yet, the AKP remains the most popular party in Turkey.

Campaigning for the election was marred internationally by offensive comments from Erdogan. His threats to Australians and New Zealanders following the Christchurch Mosque Attack, are just the latest example in a long line of provocative statements intended to unify his supporters against manufactured enemies. In featuring the Christchurch attack at election rallies, Erdogan intended to present himself as a protector of Turks and Muslims against Western powers intent on weakening Turkey, just as they did the Ottoman Empire. His rise to power is marked by an attempt to unravel the secular foundations of modern Turkey and replace them with bygone religious conservativism. In so doing he has established himself as the ‘anti-Ataturk’, undermining the socially progressive and modern Turkey imagined by Ataturk whilst attempting to replace veneration for the ‘Father of Modern Turkey’ with himself. His routine, nostalgic invocation of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate are used to proclaim Turkey as the legitimate leader of the Islamic Ummah. To this end, Ankara has embarked on a program of financing the building of mosques around the world, extending Turkish influence through religion. Mosque building has also increased domestically, challenging Turkish secularism and altering the identity of various neighbourhoods.

Erdogan’s popularity was built upon three pillars of domestic policy: effective management of the economy, extensive infrastructure projects and conservative Islamism. He understood the importance of each of these pillars in maintaining his popularity and by extension his power. If Turkey’s economy continued to grow and citizens felt that their living standards were improving, they would remain pleased with his leadership. Numerous infrastructure projects would expand the economy and cement Erdogan as instigator of this economic progress. The projects served as monuments to his leadership, reminding the people of his necessity to their lives. Finally, he would support his legitimacy by appealing to religion; his authority was God-given and Turkey, as a pious nation, owed its success to the will of God. Likewise, to oppose him and the AKP would violate this natural order.

Following the 2016 coup d’état, Erdogan clamped down on political and social opposition, purging anyone associated with Fethullah Gulen’s Islamist movement from the public service and military; journalists, NGOs and judicial officers. Although these measures impacted Erdogan’s wider popularity, they did not prevent him from amassing extended presidential powers in the 2017 Constitutional Referendum and returning the AKP to government in coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in the 2018 General Election. It appears that the most recent election results tell a different story.

In the past, the AKP has been accused of intimidating its opposition and utilising the state apparatus for its own political gain. In the most recent election, reports suggest that CHP volunteers prevented widespread vote tampering by sleeping on the collected ballots and maintaining their own counts. The Council of Europe warned against an electoral environment in Turkey that did not support free and fair elections, though they stopped short of mentioning any explicit interference in the voting process. For now, Turks anxiously await the Supreme Election Board’s full recount of ballots in Istanbul following a challenge by the AKP. Given the slim lead CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu has over AKP Binali Yildirim in Istanbul, Erdogan will ensure that any possibility of resurrecting an AKP victory is exploited. In resisting this governmental pressure, the Election Board will need to stand firm in making an objective and legal decision.

In Greek mythology, those who, through hubris, sought to reach the power and fame held only by the gods, were overcome by nemesis, the god of inevitable retribution. The method of one’s inevitable downfall would come in the form of the offence they had committed. Fittingly, should the latest electoral losses reflect the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s unimpeded control, it is proper that it is driven by the party of Ataturk and secular Turkey, the CHP.

Nicholas Conomos is a law student and Bachelor of Arts graduate in Philosophy and Modern Greek Studies from the University of Sydney. He is a former president of the Sydney University Greek Society. His research interests focus on the Balkans, Greece, Turkey and more broadly the politics of the European Union. Nicholas is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.