- Illustration courtesy of Khuda Bux Abro
- Illustration courtesy of Khuda Bux Abro

Recently, Turkey has witnessed a series devastating terrorist attacks on its soil. Many believe one of the reasons for this is the gradual erosion of the Kemalist state. The erosion has opened up avenues of heated expressions which were once tightly closed. The complete collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War threatened to relegate Turkey to the status of a bankrupt and exhausted country, destined to linger as the ‘sick man of Europe’.

But the distraught nation somewhat managed to bounce back into prominence, mainly by adopting a completely new and unprecedented political and social framework (in the context of a Muslim-majority state).

After the fall of the Ottoman set-up, Turkish nationalism was constructed by an intellectual and military elite, which grabbed power and put Turkey on a radically reformist path.

Following the defeat of Ottoman Turkey at the hands of the anti-German Allies, military officer Mustafa Kemal repulsed further attacks by the Allies and then led a nationalist movement in Turkey, which overthrew the last remnants of the Ottoman Empire, and declared Turkey as independent republic.

As head of state, Kemal was given the title of Ataturk (father of Turks) as he introduced widespread reforms based on ‘six founding principles’: republicism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism and reformism.


With the country’s changing political culture, is a Turkish spring in the offing?


An urban group of intellectual, political and military elite subsequently implemented political, judicial and social reforms in an attempt to fast-track Turkey’s emergence as a modern European state. Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) became the country’s largest political outfit.

Ataturk passed away in 1938, but the legacy of his reforms and initiatives (Kemalism) was carried forward. These reforms had also allowed limited democracy which let the more moderate Democratic Party (DP) come to power in the 1950s. But DP was firmly committed to Kemalism, though perhaps not as radically. In 1960, the Turkish military launched a coup and banned DP for ‘veering too close to religious politics’.

By the late 1960s, slow but sure economic growth and industrialisation began to give birth to a small middle class and petty bourgeoisie in Turkey’s semi-rural areas.

Members of this class began to move to the country’s main urban centres, they were conservative though, and found the ‘Kemalism’ of the cities alienating.

This class found a voice in the shape of a party formed by a university professor, Necmettin Erbakan. The party was the National Order Party (NOP). Though committed to the principles of Kemalism, NOP criticised Turkey’s wholesale adoption of westernisation.

As an alternative, it offered a system which was a synthesis of Kemalism, Turkish nationalism and certain aspects of the Ottoman Empire. It also called for loosening of Turkey’s radical secularism (called laicism).

In the 1970s, leftist violence erupted in Turkey and various Turkish cities faced insurgencies by far-left Marxist outfits. NOP sided with the Turkish state in the tussle.

In 1971, the military stepped in and imposed martial law. It claimed that the Kemalist state was being threatened by the left and from the right. It banned NOP in 1971 for politically using religion. However, in 1972, NOP became the National Salvation Party (NSP), declaring that it was committed to the core principles of Kemalism, but demanded that religious discourse be given its due space in Turkey’s politics.

By the late 1970s, NSP (also led by Erbakan), managed to win seats in Turkish parliament, its main voters being conservative middle and lower middle class traders and businessmen, and Turks living in the retrograde rural areas.

Leftist violence escalated and the military stepped in again in 1980 and imposed Turkey’s third military regime. It cracked down on leftist groups but also banned the NSP.

Erbakan was arrested and charged for using ‘radical Islam’ against Kemalism. In 1983, martial law was lifted and Erbakan was released. He reformed NSP as the Welfare Party (WP).

But the 1980s, belonged to the state-backed moderate-conservative party, Motherland, which repeatedly won elections between 1983 and the early 1990s, introducing liberal economic reforms. The military quietly backed Motherland Party because it seemed more adept at handling Turkey’s economic issues and facing the leftist threat.

Turgat Ozal, Motherland leader and prime minister at the time, advised the military that to counter the ‘leftist threat’, he be allowed to make Islam part of Turkish nationalism. The military quietly but cautiously allowed this. Thus, it was in 1984 that religion was made a compulsory subject in schools for the first time in Turkey.

After Ozal’s demise in 1993, Erbakan’s Welfare Party (WP) managed to bag the most seats in the 1994 election. In 1996, WP formed a coalition government and Erbakan became the prime minister. WP began well by introducing further economic reforms and bringing technocrats, traders and businessmen from smaller towns into the political system.

But when he initiated a programme to gradually dismantle Kemalist laicism, protests erupted in the country’s main urban centres. In 1997, Turkey’s constitutional court issued an order to ban the WP for violating the Turkish constitution and using religion as a political tool.

Erbakan was barred from holding any political office for five years. The new military-backed government cracked down on parties which it believed were working against Kemalism. This included the Virtue Party (VP) which was a reformed version of the banned WP.

The banning of VP split Erbakan’s men. One faction was committed to aggressively using faith as an electoral and doctrinal tool, while the younger cadres of the banned party wanted to solely concentrate on economic reforms. The younger faction prevailed and VP became the Justice & Development Party (AKP).

In 2002, AKP, led by the charismatic Recep T. Erdogan, managed to win that year’s election purely on an economic platform. It also promised to help take Turkey into the European Union.

The results of the AKP government’s economic policies were startling. Turkey became one of the few European countries to enjoy healthy economic growth in that period. This helped AKP to attract a wide coalition of voters in the 2007 election. Conservatives and secularists alike voted heavily for the party.

AKP continued to focus on economic issues and refrained from using religious symbolism or rhetoric. It was re-elected in 2011, still attractive for a wide variety of voters. But by then, Erdogan had begun to face severe criticism for becoming a ‘megalomaniac’and undemocratic. In 2012, the government tried to make constitutional amendments aimed to strengthen the presidency. Critics saw it as Erdogan’s attempt to maintain power unconstitutionally.

Rising criticism, the winding down of the economy, and resultant political turmoil saw Erdogan begin to use religiously-tinged rhetoric. When violent protests against his rule erupted in 2013, Erdogan claimed that the protests were ‘part of a plot by the Americans and Israelis’ to overthrow him.

In the June 2015 elections, AKP lost its majority. But no party could form a government and another election was held in November. Erdogan warned that AKP’s loss would cause severe economic downturns and political violence. He also suggested that only he could prevent Turkey from descending into chaos. Incredibly, his message stuck, and AKP regained its electoral strength.

But AKP today is a pale reflection of what it was when it first emerged in the early 2000s. Turkey is facing political and economic crisis and an unprecedented wave of religious militancy and Kurdish separatism.

Erdogan has continued to mutate into becoming an authoritarian figure, who sees conspiracies in every corner and is at best, ambiguous about his regime’s engagement with the dreaded militant Islamic State group. Many commentators in Turkey now believe the AKP is on its last legs.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 3rd, 2016

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