Led by the Leader of The Opposition a hundred thousand Turks defied a government ban to march on Ataturk’s mausoleum in Ankara to celebrate Republic Day. Marchers braved police barriers, water guns, pepper spray and tear gas to celebrate their national holiday at the tomb of the man who had brought Turkey out of the Medieval Age 89 years ago on October 29.
Having won only a third of the vote in the last elections Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the People’s Republican Party CHP, is in an unenviable position as a politician. He has often been accused of being out to lunch on economic matters and a wimp for being a silent bystander when hundreds of army officers, journalists, and secular intellectuals were incarcerated by the ruling Islamist government. Banning street celebrations of the Republic Day seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the pun intended. Kilicdaroglu vowed that he and his followers would defy the ban in spite of any barriers the government might put up. His aggressive leadership style, and the street scenes today, were reminiscent of the country’s second president Ismet Inonu whose highly vocal opposition to the ruling Democratic Party led to Turkey’s first military coup on May 27, 1960.
Local party leaders hurled demeaning remarks at army officers watching the march. One of them shouted: “Since you failed to protect the Republic we are taking possession of it.” The bans were instituted not by the central government but by municipalities dominated by the Justice and Development Party, AKP. Prime Minister Erdogan, leader of the AKP, denied that he had anything to do with the placement and removal of police barriers although he had previously intimated that the bans were placed “by reason of intelligence received.” He said the opposition leader associated himself with illegal organisations, and the police hadn’t done its job.
There were many “firsts” on this Republic Day. This was the first time that the First Lady, President Gul’s wife, attended the official Republic Day parade in her headscarf. Headscarves, which is called turbans in Turkey, were banned from official places and state events under Ataturk’s Dress Code, one of the reforms he passed to modernize the country. This was also the first time that the armed forces did not hold Republic Day receptions under orders from Chief of Staff Necdet Ozel. Former commander of the gendarmerie Ozel was appointed army chief after the top brass resigned en masse in 2011 to protest incarceration of officers.
Some 20-percent of generals are in jail on what many secular Turks and Western observers believe are trumped up charges by special prosecutors based on two fictitious plots to overthrow the AKP government. The list includes Ilker Basbug, former army chief, who once commanded NATO’s second largest army. Some of the officers charged under what is known as the “Sledgehammer Conspiracy” received stiff sentences last month from a special court that ranged from 16 years in jail to life in prison in solitary confinement. They were convicted of attempting to overthrow the government, although there has been no attempted coup. The court reduced the generals to the lowest rank of private and also stripped them of their fundamental civil rights as spouses and parents. Since the Constitutional Court quashed AKP’s enabling law, it’s a breach of Turkey’s constitution to try incumbent army officers in civilian courts on the charges they were convicted of. According to the prisoners, their lawyers and families who protested their innocence, the specially empowered court suspended their rights to a fair hearing, did not follow due procedure, and ignored universally accepted rules of evidence.
Whether for reason of paranoia or retribution the AKP has dealt the ultimate humiliation to the once-powerful Turkish army and may have fatally broken its authority as self-appointed guardians of Ataturk’s reformation. Prime Minister Erdogan, who was once incarcerated on sedition charges for reciting a jihadist poem, once remarked with black humour that he wears two white shirts, the second one being reserved for his execution. A cabinet minister smirked that the army had turned out to be a paper tiger all along, while the outspoken Deputy PM Arinc said “These people cannot even fight.”
Since AKP came to power in 2002 Prime Minister Erdogan has steered an astutely balanced course between his party’s Islamist base and secularists, carefully paying lip service to the Republic’s founder Ataturk at every opportunity. His support of over fifty percent during the last election suggests that he’s made inroads into the hearts of the middle of the road Turks with his management of the economy. Thanks to U.S. support and hefty investments from the Arab Gulf States and the European Union, not to mention the huge Russia trade, even his opponents admit that the economy has thrived under the AKP. When dealing with the army in slow imperceptible motion and in carefully measured steps he managed to capitalise on the resentment of the 1980 military coup by the Left, mostly represented by the official opposition People’s Republican Party. The army was lulled into passivity by his apparent sincerity that he really intended to join the European Union, an objective that his government now seems to have all but abandoned.
Emboldened by his successes Mr. Erdogan now seems to have turned his attention to his party’s Islamist agenda and symbols of the secular republic, at the core of which lies women’s rights and equality with men, anathema to Islamic fundamentalists. Last summer his majority government passed laws that virtually banned abortion and C-section births. He wants to double Turkey’s population and raise a generation of good Muslims, while his Minister of Health remarked that even rape does not justify abortion. There are now more women covered up from head to toe in Turkey than at any other time in the Republic’s history. Whether by coercion or gentle suasion, these women have to endure Turkey’s summer temperatures of 40C wearing long gray coats if they want to go out in public even in seaside resorts. The Prime Minister doesn’t appreciate artists receiving government subsidies as part of a clique that doesn’t reflect the country’s Islamic values. A famous Turkish pianist is currently being dragged through the courts under criminal charges for making fun of Islamic concepts of paradise in a Tweet. Mr. Erdogan wants to pass a law that will make Islamophobia a crime against humanity, an offence that will most likely be tried in special courts and punished severely. Tuncay Ozkan, a journalist that used to organise pro-Ataturk rallies to protest AKP government has now been incarcerated since 2007 and even the special court has admitted that it doesn’t know exactly what he’s been charged with.
With a parliamentary majority that is unlikely to be challenged in future elections plus his special courts and autocratic style it remains to be seen how far Mr. Erdogan, or his successors, will go to transform the country into an Islamic republic and whether Turkey will become another Iran or Pakistan. Having undergone a serious colon cancer operation in 2011, there’s some talk about who would succeed Mr. Erdogan if the worst happens, and some possible scenarios are frightening. Despite his piousness as a Muslim he seems to have embraced some Western values such as American-style capitalism and Harvard education for his children. It also remains to be seen if opposition leader Kilicdaroglu has met his calling as the Second Inonu, or a Boris Yeltsin that will mobilise civilians to protect Turkey’s secular values established by Ataturk. There’s little doubt that he has no chance of ever forming the government with his social democratic philosophy that the Turkish countryside doesn’t even understand, and that’s where the votes are.