One hundred years after Turkey’s revered founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led the Central Powers’ defence of Gallipoli, a new Turkish strongman is on the cusp of ushering in radical changes to the country’s political system.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, largely seen as the most effective Turkish leader since Ataturk, is seeking to abolish the country’s 140-year parliamentary tradition, switching to a presidential system “a la Turka”.
For Erdogan, the sweeping change is necessary to hasten what he describes as the “New Turkey”.
Near daily, he appears at rallies or on television channels. All bluster and boom, he argues that the current parliamentary system is a “hindrance”, a deadweight restraining this nation of 80 million people’s rise to the highest echelons of global power and politics.
“The parliamentary system has become an obstacle,” Erdogan said recently. “We must move ahead of contemporary civilisations.” Much depends on upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 7.Erdogan and the party he co-founded, the Justice and Development Party, or AKP – a centre right, Islamist party – are seeking a commanding majority.
If they can secure two-thirds’ support, or 367 deputies from the 550-seat Parliament, they will be poised to rewrite the Turkish constitution, shifting to an executive presidency. The draft would then be submitted to popular vote, which is expected to win majority public support.
Erdogan is ramping up his “at least 400 seats” campaign for the ruling party.
“You will show the necessary attitude … display the strength necessary for a new constitution in the same way that the nation displayed its will during the presidential elections,” he said at a mass rally in the Central Anatolian city of Kirsehir recently. “You will lay the foundation of the New Turkey.”
Yet to critics, Turkey is drifting towards one-man rule.
“We can’t expect a democratic constitution from Erdogan and the AKP,” said Istanbul Sehir University’s Ergun Ozbudun, the country’s leading constitutional law scholar.
“We have reached a point where preserving the existing one is preferable, as the alternative will be even worse.”
Turkey is a deeply polarised nation. A basic secular-Islamist schism has characterised the country since it was founded by Ataturk in 1923, following the Ottoman collapse and the resistance at Gallipoli.
Ataturk – deeply affected by what he saw on Gallipoli’s battlefield – imposed sweeping secular reforms, which many Turks to this day struggle to internalise.
Erdogan, by contrast, rose through Istanbul’s Islamic underground, long under the secular establishment’s heel, to become the most powerful man in Turkey, ruling for 12 years, first as Prime Minister and then as President.
Charismatic and with an intuitive political understanding, he disdains Ataturk’s secular reforms, openly pining for a return to Ottoman imperial glory. He has begun to greet visiting dignitaries with an escort of 16 warriors outfitted in the regalia of past Turkic states, spears and swords included.
“During Ottoman times, Islamic identity was the dominant identity,” said 27-year-old Berkin Demirsoy, a masters student at Ankara’s Bilkent University. “Since Ataturk’s revolution, Islam became a sub-identity subordinate to the dominant secular and nationalist supra-identity.
“Erdogan’s goal is to reverse this.”
Yet the two strongmen, past and present, share authoritarian tendencies and a strong cult of personality.
Ataturk is a national deity in Turkey. In eastern Ardahan province, Turks flood Damal Mountain each June, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ataturk’s silhouette in the hills. Erdogan, meantime, inspires fanatical devotion from his followers and recently “healed” an ill woman during a mass rally.
“Erdogan is like the conductor of an orchestra,” said Mustafa Yildiz, a 64-year-old civil servant. “The presidential system will create harmony in Turkish politics.”
Erdogan likely desires a unicameral legislature that he rules over from his sprawling, controversial new 1150-room “White Palace” in Ankara. The palace, infused with Ottoman architecture, replaced Ataturk’s palace in the capital.
“I should be the one determining who I work with,” Erdogan recently told state broadcaster TRT. “I can’t do this under the present system because there are those, in the Judiciary for example, who prevent it.”
The two remaining institutions outside his present control – the Central Bank and the Constitutional Court – will likely be reigned in and politicised.
Critics are, meantime, harassed. Scores of people have been arrested over the past year for “insulting Erdogan”, including a former Miss Turkey and a 13-year-old boy.
With the support of the Cemaat, a Turkish religious movement led by United States-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers infiltrated the police and Judiciary, he managed to tame the military, long the guardians of Ataturk’s secular Turkey, while extending his control over the police and intelligence services.
Independent media has been systematically abolished, with around 80 per cent of the country’s newspapers toeing the pro-Erdogan line. An Ankara insider, leaking explosive allegations, recently claimed that Erdogan planned to take over a bank, IS Bankasi, founded by Ataturk in 1924.
“He is establishing a system of personal rule. What he desires is nothing like the US system, as he does not care for checks and balances,” said Ozbudun, who was in 2007 invited by Erdogan’s Government to assist in drafting a constitution.
“It is a system which we can no longer call democratic.” To his supporters – generally devout Turks from rural working-class backgrounds – Erdogan has overseen solid economic growth, bolstered the country’s international standing and confidently steered Turkey back to its Islamic roots.
“Erdogan saved Turkey,” said Mehmet Eraltay, 33, who hawks sesame seed buns from a street stall in Ankara, a job that an ambitious Erdogan toiled at on Istanbul’s back streets in his youth.
“You need a big palace for a big president,” he adds, referring to the controversy surrounding the White Palace.
Yet it is his attempts to engineer a “pious generation” that has most profoundly worried his opponents. Erdogan is a deeply religious man, approximating in anti-Western sentiment and orthodoxy to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Compulsory religious education has crept into the state curriculum, roundly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights.
In a bar in the staunchly secular Ankara neighbourhood of Cankaya, cigarette tips flare orange. Rap music blasts from speakers as young men and women drink handles of beer, discussing architecture and football, society and politics.
Many people here say they feel that the rise of Turkey’s Islamists, and Erdogan’s looming domestic omnipotence, is threatening their way of life.
“I don’t believe one man should have all the power,” says 22-year-old Yasemin Ulusahin, snuggled beneath a blanket and sipping at a glass of beer. “It is not his place to tell me how many children I should have, or to tell women we shouldn’t laugh in a public place.”
At Ataturk’s hilltop mausoleum in Ankara, schoolchildren march and Turkish flags wave. The capital sweeps away below. On the city’s western fringe, Erdogan’s White Palace rises up.
“It shows Turkey’s power to the people visiting us,” said a visitor to Ataturk’s tomb, who did not want to be named.
“It is a symbol of our modernity and greatness.”