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Erdogan’s decisive battle with Ataturk’s state

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared confident and reassured last Monday as he announced the list of reforms he promised. This has been one of most dangerous moves in the history of modern Turkey because the reforms address the Turkish “national identity." But his task seemed easy as he finalized his battle with the army, intelligence and judiciary years before that. It was therefore easy to cancel a nationalistic anthem that exaggerates Ataturkism, to allow the hijab and to teach in the Kurdish language. These issues would've been enough reasons to hang him if we were in 1960 - like what happened to Adnan Menderes, the first premier who defied Ataturkism. Turkey has changed a lot since then!

But Erdogan hasn't finished his task yet. There's the constitution left. He promised to write a new constitution "that agrees with the standards of major European rights." Erdogan is smart. He turned the issue of belonging to Europe into a gain to achieve his agenda in deepening democracy after it was a controversial issue with secular parties which attempted to impose a "Westernization" on the Turkish society. It's as if Erdogan is telling the Turks: "If you want to be Westerners, you must be democratic. After that, let society choose the identity it wants."

At the beginning, the political elite, which founder of modern Turkey Mustafa Kamal created, attempted to be democratic. In 1924, they (alone) came up with a constitution for Turkey without an elected constituent assembly and without allowing other parties and movements to participate. Their constitution called for the common general concepts of democracy but it did not "place any restrictions or monitoring balances against the absolute authority of the parliamentarian majority, and thus allowed the establishment of the sole tyrannical regime - which lasted until 1946," as researcher Ergun Ozbudun at Turkey's Bilkent University said in a long essay about the new Turkish constitution. The essay was recently published in the magazine "Turkish vision," and I have relied on it for a lot of information in this article.

Adnan Menderes achievements

When Turkey transformed towards real democracy after World War II, the elections produced real representatives of the people. The political elite and the intellectual elite allied with an ideological army and men with money did not hope for that. They always thought that they know what's best for the people.

Erdogan and his party's battle lies in eliminating all these signs that contradict with European standards for freedoms.

Jamal Khashoggi

So they rejected the result and conspired to topple or rather execute Adnan Menderes, the first elected premier from outside the ruling party, despite the fact that he succeeded on the economic front, achieved an industrial renaissance in Turkey and strengthened his country's relations with the West and made it join NATO. But he also allowed for mosques' calls to prayer be in Arabic. And he allowed religious education. He succeeded in any elections held in the country. So secular parties and the army mobilized protests which began at universities and later transformed into riots in big cities - riots that turned out to have been planned. The army used these riots as an excuse and made its move in May 1960 to lead the first frank military coup "to save Turkey."

Since that day, tampering with the Turkish constitution began by formulating it in a way that protects Ataturk elite's vision towards Turkish society, its future and choices. Restrictions were put in place to guarantee there would be no "deviation from the democratic path." Ehsan Dagi, a political sciences lecturer and researcher at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, believes that the Ataturk’s biggest dilemma with democracy is to "not trust uneducated people who are subject to being deceived by popular politicians and ideologies (which oppose revolution) and that the people need someone to guide them and light their way."

The Turkish constitution

Therefore, in the constitution they wrote after the coup (they once again wrote it through a chosen committee and not an elected one and they did not allow any of the democratic party deputies who won during the last elections to participate), they included what can be described as principles "above the constitution" that govern the constitution. They called them "the Ataturk principles." This was further strengthened after the 1980 coup when a third constitution was formulated by an assigned committee after all political parties were dissolved. The constitution - which is still worked upon and which is the subject of Erdogan's next battle - became full with tyrannical expressions like "it's not acceptable to protect any mentality or act that contradicts with Ataturkish nationalism or with Ataturk's reforms and principles." There are also three major articles that cannot be amended like Article 2 which describes the Turkish republic as "a pro of Ataturk's nationalism" and Article 58 which grants the state "the task of educating the youths according to Atatruk's intellect."

Erdogan and his party's battle lies in eliminating all these signs that contradict with European standards for freedoms on the basis that the first principle of a democratic constitution is that it does not have "an official ideology of its own," like all these Ataturkish conditions.

The second challenge is eliminating "guarantees" that protect the indicated Ataturkish principles and which distinguish the 1982 constitution. It seems that the military, after their second coup, felt the necessity of the presence of these guarantees. Democratic life returned despite the conditions laid out in the 1961 constitution (the first coup). So their new constitution was dominated by a tutelage on the state - a tutelage that shows the military institution's lack of trust in civilian and secular politicians. They thus made themselves a preferential position over the government through the national security council. They were thus the first front of protection. Then they made the judiciary the second front of protection and armed it through the constitutional court with jurisdictions that enabled it to dissolve tens of parties. Erdogan's party itself, and despite its success and parliamentarian majority, was about to be dissolved upon a judicial decision in 2008. It survived due to an extra one vote in its favor.

The presidency too was one of the protection fronts. The president's jurisdictions were formulated in a manner making him the guarantor of the constitution. This was appropriate and smart when general Kenan Evren, the leader of the 1980 coup, assumed presidency. They probably hoped that military rulers always assume the post. This however did not happen as a result of the power of history which does not serve tyranny. It also did not happen as a result of the wisdom of some civilian politicians who believed in progression like Turgut Ozal, whom the military grudgingly accepted to succeed Evren as president. Ozal can be viewed as the brave man who accepted to be the bridge between the era of the military tyranny and the era of democracy. He might have even paid his life for that as last month witnessed the first court hearing of a high-ranking officer accused of poisoning him 20 years ago.

The battle for democracy is long and harsh in our world. It requires, patience, wisdom and progression and not anger and protests. Perhaps this is what explains Erdogan's silence regarding formulating a new constitution although everyone knows that the tasked committee has finalized a great deal of it.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Oct. 5, 2013.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

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