Comparing Erdoğan’s Second Republic (2018) with Ataturk’s First Republic (1923): Turkey’s 100-Year Journey and its Relationship with the Past”




On 9 July 2018, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first President of Turkey’s new presidential system, called “the Republican System of Government,” marking the death of the First Republic established by Ataturk in 1923. Erdogan demolished the old Republic and replaced it with a new one, Second Republic. This article claims that Erdoğan has followed in Atatürk’s footsteps and has largely attempted to address Turkey’s current problems in a manner nearly identical to that of Mustafa Kemal. This article discuss the two regimes’ similar responses to three major questions: of separation of powers; Syrian policies and facing history.



With the national elections of June 24, 2018, Turkey entered a new political age, one which has been termed a “System of Presidential Governance” (Cumhurbaşkanlığı Hükümet Sistemi) and which has brought to a close its longstanding Parliament-based system of separation of powers. In the new system all authority rests in the office and person of the president. Even the Council of Ministers has been eliminated. In fact, the president of the Republic now has the authority not only to appoint his cabinet ministers, but also all high-level public officials, including members of the Constitutional Court (Anayasa Mahkemesi), the Supreme Judicial Council and Advisory Councils, Council of judges and prosecutors, provincial governors and the chairman of the Central Bank. The Turkish legislature, the Grand National Assembly no longer possesses the power to even approve members of the cabinet, to censor them or give a vote of “no confidence.” Even a call for new elections now requires a 3/5 majority in the GNA.

This system, wherein the power and influence of the Assembly and the political parties themselves has been completely destroyed and all legislative and judicial authority has been placed in the hands of a single body is what some political scientists have called a “competitive authoritarian system.”[1]Frankly stated, what has been established is a new “Tek Adam” or “Single Man” regime, one which we prefer to call Turkey’s “Second Republic”.

The First Republic was the one established by the original Tek Adam, “Single Man”, M. Kemal Atatürk, in 1923, in which executive, legislative and judicial functions were also under the authority of the President of the Republic, or “Eternal Leader”, as M. Kemal was called. Our principal claim here is that the similarities between the First and Second Republics are anything but coincidental. Both leaders—Atatürk and Erdo­gan—claimed to be establishing an authoritarian, personality-based regime on the basis of societal homogeneity by partially destroying the societal and institutional pluralism that preceded them. And indeed, that is what they both did.

When the First Republic was being established, the Christian population within its borders, if not massacred or expelled during the war years, were prevented from participating in social and political life. The newly organized opposition to the Republic which emerged in the first Parliament in 1920, was eliminated first by dissolving the Parliament in 1923, and after the Kurdish Rebellion in 1925 by passing the the Law on the Restoral of Order (Takrir-i Sükun), and the subsequent Independecne (or Revolutionary) Tribunals (İstiklal Mahkemeleri). An unsuccessful assassination attempt against M. Kemal in 1926 served as the pretext and opportunity to then silence the press and completely eliminate any vestiges of opposition.

Tayyip Erdoğan’s own measures against his opponents—particularly after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016—are not that different than those employed by his predecessors. On June 17, 1926, after the assassination attempt on M. Kemal, Prime Minister İsmet İnönü sent a cable informing him of “the political importance of exploiting the assassination attempt beneficially.”[2]Compare this to Tayyip Erdoğan’s own evaluation of the June 15, 2016 coup attempt as “a blessing from God.”[3]The similarity is both striking and significant.

I would assert that in establishing his Second Republic, Erdoğan has followed in Atatürk’s footsteps, not only in crushing the opposition, but in many other ways in which he was successful.


The Importance of Symbols

On April 18, 1920 the Anatolia Agency news service reported that a new Assembly would be opened in Ankara by the then-fledgling “Nationalist Forces” on April 21. However, the 21stturned out to be a Wednesday, so M. Kemal ordered that the opening be pushed back for two more days to April 23, and sent out an order to the various military and civil leaders throughout Anatolia, informing them that the Assembly would be opened on the Islamically significant Friday instead, after Friday prayers were first performed in Ankara’s historic Hacı Bayram Mosque. Those present would draw strength and virtue from the “light” of the Kor’an and from prayer, and would be concluded (hatim indiril-) with recitations from the first volume of the Bukhari’s collection of Hadith. M. Kemal understood the symbolic importance of the act and wanted the ceremony to be simultaneously performed in every corner of Anatolia, and that before the prayer, “our Caliph and Padishah’s name be mentioned in a special prayer to be recited in the Friday sermon (hutbe) and a special prayer to be recited for his well-being and for his speedy liberation from captivity (teb’anın biran önce kurtulup saadete ermesi).[4]On April 16, 1920, it was announced by fatwa that an Islamic holy war had begun for the purpose of rescuing the Islamic Caliphate.[5]

Tayyip Erdoğan took the oath of office to become President of the Turkish Republic on July 9, 2018, the date of the opening of the new GNA. But that day was a Monday, so a separate ceremony was arranged for the following Friday, July 13. After noonday prayers at the very same Hacı Bayram Mosque, Erdoğan led a procession to the old Assembly building. There, after recalling that the first Assembly opened on a Friday, he gave a speech that made direct allusions both to M. Kemal’s legendary words, as well as to M. Kemal’s period of governance with following words:

We desired that we should have the [new] cabinet’s first meeting…just as this was done 98 years ago. I am full of emotion, for such a beginning, under this very roof, recalls for us so many things…. I recall with mercy and longing…Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk… Today I will begin my speech by stating that, just like 98 years ago, we recognize no earthly power greater than the will of the nation. We will raise Turkey above the level of the modern civilizations.[6](muasır medeniyetler seviyesinin üzerine)

His speech and the ceremony was a premeditated move, one planned down to the last detail.

Even so, the image of Turkey today is very different than that of M. Kemal’s Turkey, both within Turkey itself and in the West. French President Emmanuel Macron, in a talk on France’s new foreign policy priorities given on August 27, stated that “Erdoğan’s Turkey is not the Turkey of Atatürk’s period,” and after describing M. Kemal as “secular and friendly to Europe,” he characterized Erdoğan as “pan-İslamist” and “hostile to the West.”[7]Even though, we can assume that Macron most likely didn’t know that M. Kemal “began an Islamic holy war with the goal of saving the Islamic Caliphate” at the beginning of the 1920s and that there were plenty of reports in contemporary European Press that M. Kemal was a “Pan-Islamist” and “enemy of the West”; it is indisputable that the image of “an Islamist-reactionary and anti-Western Erdoğan and a secular, modern, and pro-Western M. Kemal” is very well-rooted in the West today. Over the course of the Syrian Civil War in particular, there have been numerous claims in the Western press that Erdoğan was the principal supporter of ISIS in Syria and that his ultimate goal was to resurrect the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East.

Such an understanding of the Turkish President is not limited to the West, however. Similar analyses of Erdoğan are also widespread in Turkey itself. Whereas M. Kemal represented for Turks secularism, enlightenment, and western modernization, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seen as a reactionary Islamist who wishes to restore Shari’a law, an Islam-based state and society.


Kulturkampf and the Two Principal Streams of Ottoman-Turkish History

There is a common tradition to explain Turkey’s current problems through the framework of the country’s longstanding Kulturkampf,or “culture war,” which is not totally wrong. Since the 19th century, Ottoman-Turkish society has pursued two different cultural and political trajectories, one western, progressive, enlightened, and modernizing, the other, Islamist and conservative. Over a century-and-a-half, these two cultural-political streams have continuously struggled over the soul and identity of Muslim Turkish society and over which “cultural world or civilization” Turkey would be a part of. This culture clash, which continues on to our day, remains one of the major cultural fault lines in Turkey.

Yet, despite all the differences in culture, collective identity, and lifestyle, these two blocs bear great resemblance to one another, particularly in regard to their political representatives and political programs. They are the mirror image of one another: both sides yearn for an authoritarian regime—naturally, one in which theyare in charge—and have little actual concern for rule of law, democracy, or human rights. Despite some nuances, there is a general, unspoken agreement between both blocks regarding the mass attrocities of recent Ottoman-Turkish history, that such things never happened and are denied.

Indeed, the Turkish Republic itself, established in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and on its ruins, can be seen as the joint creation of these two cultural streams. It is a well-known fact that the “Turkish War for Indepencence” that was fought between 1918-1923 used explicit Islamic motifs and symbols and had as one of its goals the liberation of the Ottoman Sultan/Caliph, seen as being held captive in occupied Istanbul. Nevertheless, soon after victory, the western-leaning, secular and modernist M. Kemal would abolish the Caliphate itself on March 3, 1924, break with his conservative Islamic allies and silence them in establishing his own authoritarian “Single Man” regime. After his death in 1938—and especially in the post-war period—the regime he established would be reformed as a “tutulary democracy”[8]in which the military would act as the indirect (and occasionally, direct) “overseer” of the civilian political system. When it appeared that the system would escape the control of civil-and-military bureaucracy, the military would take it upon itself to intervene and hold power until the system could be “retooled” and set back on course. For much of the late 20th century, such interventions occurred with some regularity: in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.

Having been largely kept out of power during this period by the country’s western oriented military and secular institutions, the Justice and Development or AK Party’s electoral victory in 2002 can be seen as the “revenge” of Turkey’s conservative Islamist bloc. It was thus unsurprising that chief on the AK party’s initial agenda was the introduction of measures intended to rid Turkey of its tutulary democracy. Without going into detail here, suffice it to say that various mechanisms were employed to that end, such as popular mobilization (initiatives to appeal to the traditionally oppressed Kurdish and Alevi sectors) and criminal investigations against the representatives of the “tutelary democracy,” namely, military and civil bureacrats.[9]For a certain period during this process, the AKP oscillated between liberal and majoritarian understandings of democracy, although they finally ended with what can be termed “competative authoritarianism,” as its counterpart had already been attempted during the early period of Republic. We have thus been experiencing a reenactment of the early Republic period.

Why did the AKP ended up with “competetive authoritarinism”?  We believe there are two important factors that can help explain the reasons. First, various political developments in the Middle East. When we look back at the last two centuries of Ottoman-Turkish political history, we see that the great positive or negative internal disruptions were all fundamentally connected with international developments. Both the reform initiatives undertaken by the regime for greater democratiziation and the shift toward more authoritarian alternatives, as well as the various massacres of different ethno-religious communities were all directly connected with the Ottoman-Turkish ruling elites’ responses to its foreign relations.

Today is no different. The country’s ruling elites frequently compare the events in the region to the conditions after the outbreak of the First World War and believe that Turkey is currently engaged in a “Second War for Independence.” Beginning in 2011, a series of events that occurred both internally and abroad, the apex of which being the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, have been viewed by the country’s rulers as direct threats to Turkey’s security and continued existence.

Turkey’s ruling elites largely believe the United States’ Middle East policies today are near identical with those followed by Great Britain and France in the previous century, and that the ultimate goal of this strategy is to alter the political borders of the region to Turkey’s disadvantage. In this sense, Erdoğan’s drawing closer to Putin’s Russia as a counterweight to the U.S.’s (and, in part) Europe’s perceived strategies in the region show great structural similarities with M. Kemal’s earlier rapprochement with Soviet Union in order to better resist British and French encroachments. It is widely believed that, just as in previous centuries, Turkey is today forced to engage in a war of survival against the external enemies besieging it and the internal enemies attempting to weaken it from within. And just as M. Kemal and his cadre acted a century before, this struggle, it is believed can be won only by increasing the power of the central government and silencing the “hostile” or “treacherous” internal opposition.

The second reason is the structural weakness of Turkey’s multi-party democracy that was established after the Second World War. The system that was put in place was not that of a true Rechtstaat or “state of laws” characterized by a full separation of powers and checks and balances. Instead, the main goal was to establish the civilian and military bureaucracy’s “guardianship” over the new regime. Thus, the individuals and agencies bringing these democratic institutions to life did not actually place much stock in them. Even more important perhaps was the fact that in the course of this process no political culture was created in Turkey that could inhabit these institutions and imbue them with true democratic values.

There is a school of thought that dates back as far as Plato and Aristotle, which elaborates on the factors of what holds socities together or causes their dissolution. It claims that in order for societies to be strong and stable, it must possess a accord-harmony between the institutions and its members as to their approach to and acceptance of these institutions.[10]When such an agreement is lacking a gap opens up between the democratic institutions and the society’s prevailing norms; the entire system becomes more vulnerable to disruption and susceptible to collapse.

Perhaps we should add a third factor here. In certain situations, people will opt not for a democratic state of laws and the liberties it offers, but for security and stability—even at the expense of such institutions.

These are the main reasons that have facilitated the AK Party’s drift toward an authoritarian model, one that more closely resembles that of the First Republic, and even in the face of some opposition within society. It would not be wrong to locate the beginning of this transition to greater authoritarianism in the years 2011-2012. The slogan “A Vision for the New Turkey” was first uttered at the AKP’s Party Congress on September 30, 2012, and a blueprint for a political program referred to as the “Presidential system” (Başkanlık Sistemi) was introduced at that time.[11]The first practical steps toward laying the foundation for this Presidential System (second republic) were only begun after the “great blessing” of the failed coup of July 2016 and the April 16, 2017 referendum. At this time, the party’s leadership openly declared that they would be establishing a new state and its founding father would be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.[12]And the effusive praise and worship to M. Kemal by Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP began to appear at the same time as the foundations for the new Republic were being laid.

It is possible to read Turkey’s current political scene as a return of the old cadres who established the First Republic under new conditions, namely, the reascendence of the conservative-Islamic stream. The new presidential system shares the power with the western-secular-modern currents, but prevented them from fully ascending to power.

It is for this reason that Erdoğan prefers to explain his own actions in reference to the Kemalist period. Erdoğan and the conservative-Islamic currents has another claim, as if they say to their new allies whom they have gradually pushed from power: “The failures that have occurred in the past have been yours. The only thing you can do is to support us, because we will build this country better than you.”

In fact, the newly revived alliance of these former allies shows that any hope that Turkey’s current problems can be solved by opposing the Erdoğan regime through simply embracing the western, secular, and modernist values of M. Kemalism is illusory. These two main political and cultural blocs have realigned with one another, just as in the 1920s. Using Kemalism and the values of the First Republic to oppose the Second Republic of Erdoğan is therefore a dead-end.


Six Points of Similarity between the Two Regimes

The main political critiques that today may be leveled against the Erdoğan regime can be gathered under six main points, all of which are interrelated.[13]

  1. The lack of the hallmarks of a truly democratic legal system: the principle of separation of powers and a system of checks and balances to prevent a monopolization of power in one of the branches.
  2. The lack of basic human rights and freedoms, such as: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly and movement, the right to form political parties and the holding of free elections;
  3. Policies directed at various national, ethnic, and religious groups; the exclusion mechanisms that keep various non- and heterodox Muslim as well as non-Turkish communities—primarily Kurds, Alevis, Christians, and Jews–from fully participating in the country’s social and political life as full and equal citizens with the same rights as others;
  4. The lack of gender equality: the continued discrimination against women, not only in legal matters, but also in every other aspect of social life;
  5. The failure of the Turkish regime to reduce the tensions with many of great powers, including the failure to devise a policy that clearly defines Ankara’s place and its Middle Eastern policies within the current East-West tensions;
  6. The continued refusal of the Turkish regime to openly and honestly confront its own history and its conscious practice of encouraging “societal amnesia” in regard to this history.


This list could certainly be added to without much difficulty such as the relation between religon and state (how to keep the religious orders under state control) or the position of the military forces within the state etc,), but our point here is not to provide a complete list of the Erdoğan regime’s structural problems. Rather, it is to emphasize the similarities in the responses given by the current regime to those of the Kemalist period in regard to these subjects, and to highlight the fact that Erdoğan has largely attempted to address Turkey’s current problems in a manner nearly identical to that of the first Tek AdamSingle Man Kemal.


We will discuss here the two regimes’ similar responses to three major questions: of separation of powers; Syrian policies and facing history.


The Principle of Separation of Powers:

The fundamental problem in Turkey today is the disappearance of a political separation of powers. In such a situation free elections are no longer possible, the press has been muzzled, and basic human rights and freedoms have been severely curtailed. Valid criticism has been leveled at the AKP regime that state resources are unhesitatingly funneled into the coffers of the party in power, that the borders between state and party have been largely erased; that the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government have been gathered together in the hands of President Erdoğan; that the state bureaucracy has been neutralized and reduced and that long-standing political traditions have been done away with. State institutions have, in such a situation, been turned into party branches instructed to operate in a partisan fashion.[14]

Even so, Erdoğan’s blatant monopolization of governmental power has its precedent in Turkey; he is simply following in the footsteps of M. Kemal, for whom the uniting of power was a fundamental concept and guide for running the country. Nor was this simply a necessary wartime expedient to which M. Kemal was forced to resort; instead it served as a model for honest and direct government that he would continue to defend until his death. To give but a few examples:

In a speech given before the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1921, he openly defended the notion of a uniting of all governmental power in one office, saying “Gentlemen! There is no separation of powers in nature…. The power that is called the national will, national sovereignty cannot be divided and separated.”[15]During the 1923 Izmir Economic Congress, M. Kemal defended the principle of unity of power by reading verses from the Kur’an. In his talk, he argued that in the West, “the separation of powers upon which” a great many governmental models are based “is the balance of powers,” and added that “the government of the Turkish Grand National Assembly does not resemble these forms of government…. our government is a government established on the foundation of unity of power,”[16]and described the separation of powers as “reactionary.”[17]

In both his famous (and famously long) 1927 speech and in the opening session of the Assembly later that year, M. Kemal would repeat this principle, calling the “basis for the formation of the government is the theory of unity of powers.”[18]In his 1931 Medeni Bilgiler Kitabı (Book of Knowledge on Civic Life) that he dictated to his adopted daughter Afet İnan for it to be used in Turkish elementary and middle schools, M. Kemal wrote that “the theory of separation of powers is not a foundation for us…the form of government of the Turkish nation is a unity of powers.[19]

At the ruling Republican Peoples Party’s third general assembly in 1934, the principle of a “unity of powers” was added to the party’s program,[20]and was repeated in the party’s assembly the following year. M. Kemal would take the principle one step further at that gathering, proclaiming a unity between party and state. With a government decision on June 18, 1936, the country’s Interior Minister would simultaneously become the RPP party chairman, and the governors of each province would simultaneously serve as the RPP’s provincial branch chairman.[21]On November 1, 1937, one year before his death, M. Kemal addressed the opening of the Assembly’s annual legislative session and expounded further on the principle of unity of powers by recognizing the unification of party and state and the transformation of provincial governors into simultaneous CHP provincial branch chairmen.[22]

This system of “Party-State Union” established by M. Kemal, was named the “Chief System” and began to be taught in schoolbooks starting in 1938. According to this book, “the ‘Chief System’ was invented by the Great Genius [Ataturk]. Mussolini and Hitler learned from him, however had overdone it and exceeded the proper limit.” According to this system, “Those who fall into dispute with the Chief and the forces who threaten to rival or limit the power of the Chief must be wiped out or subjected to him.”

In short, both Kemal and Erdoğan—the first openly, the second in practice—acquired a unity of powers through their control of the organs of the state. They both built for themselves authoritarian regimes with the goal of creating a new society and of turning each of its citizens into a “new man”.

The reality painted by these facts is that if one wants to critisize the unity of power and to establish a pluralist democratic system, this critique must include a criticism of the Kemalist period, as well. Without critisizing M. Kemal’s political philosophy and the system he established, opposing or criticizing Erdoğan’s “single man” regime is impossible. This is the most serious impasse confronting Turkish opposition groups today.


Mustafa Kemal and Turkey’s Syria Policies

In recent years President Erdoğan has come under increasing criticism in the West for his policies on Syria. Much of the criticism has derived from the perception that Erdoğan has abandoned the traditional pro-western stance put in place by M. Kemal and has both distanced himself from the West and drawn closer to the East—especially Russia. Moreover, the Turkish president has been accused of supporting Islamic terror groups in Syria, and ISIS in particular, and with aiming to establish a Shari’a state together with the various Islamist fundamentalists in the region. While some of these claims could be written off as “war propaganda” consciously fabricated in response to Turkey’s overt lack of support for U.S. policies in the region, we can say with some confidence that they also derive from the general ignorance of the fact that developments in the region—and in particular and most importantly, the policies on Syria that were pursued by M. Kemal between 1918 and 1924—remain largely unknown.

My main argument here is that the Erdoğan regime’s policies toward Syria show more than a passing similarity to those pursued during the Turkish War for Independence (1918-1923). The manner in which M. Kemal defined and responded to the problems of his period all resemble the processes that Erdoğan himself would later undertake.

Both the First and Second Turkish Republics have struggled with the questions of what sort of state the Turks needed to build on the ruins of a pluralistic empire. Even though the Second Republic may not have found sufficient (comprehensive) the solutions what the First Republic offered, both Erdoğan’s and Kemal’s responses are at least partially the product of the competing pressures on Turkey: the desire to rise again to the position of regional power on one hand, and on the other, the abiding fear of dismemberment and partition at the hands of hostile forces. This tension between grand hopes and nagging fears can be seen in every aspect of the two leaders’ political behavior.

The so-called “National Pact” (Misak-i Milli), in which the nationalist forces vowed, first at the Erzurum (July 1919) and Sivas (September 1919) Congresses and later in the Chamber of Deputies in Istanbul (January 1920), to attempt to preserve and defend the integrity of the remaining Ottoman lands, has long been identified as the cornerstone of the Turkish War for Independence. Although the pact did not explicitly define or delineate the borders of that territory, they are known to include a significant portion of both today’s Syria and Iraq. During the subsequent debates in the Turkish Assembly over the areas through which these borders passed, M. Kemal defined them as follows: “[W]hatever borders we can draw that will be to our greatest advantage, those will be our national borders….The borderlines will be those that we can secure through our own power and might.”[23]In other words, M. Kemal believed that Turkey’s borders would extend as far as the country’s armed might would allow. On various occasions M. Kemal would state that these borders would also partially include Aleppo and encompass both Deyr-i Zor and Mosul.[24]

It is worth noting that these utterances were made afterM. Kemal signed the first border agreement with France, on October 20, 1921, which left the aforementioned regions within the French Mandate for Syria. Likewise, in a special map published in 1924, the Turkish Grand National Assembly took no notice of the borders delineated by the Franco-Turkish border agreement; instead the map showed the Turkish Republic “to stretch from south of Aleppo eastward to include Rakka and Deyr-i Zor, as well as heading from east of Deyr-i Zor and curving southward [to also encompass] Kirkuk and Mosul.”[25]

  1. Kemal’s policies on Syria and Iraq envisioned either a federation between the three states or uniting them within some sort of confederation.[26]In a letter he sent to the former Ottoman Interior Minister Talat Paşa on February 20, 1920, M. Kemal described his ideas as thus: “To establish relations…with Syria and with the Iraqis and to persuade them to embark on oppositional efforts against the British and French. Decisions have already been reached with Arab delegates holding authority [to make such decisions], who have come to us in order to place our coordinated action and collaboration on a firmer basis. The political formula that we have defined from the beginning toward the Arabs is this: Each nation, after establishing its independence within its own [borders], is to unite [with the other states] in the form of a confederation. This foundation was received by the Arabs with great satisfaction.”[27]

Similar views were repeated at a secret session of the Assembly on April 24, 1920, since it was a closed session, Kemal could openly admit that a Pan-Islamist policy was being pursued chiefly in regard to Syria and Iraq.At the session Kemal explained that he could not publicly express “the Islamist policies that the foreigners most fear and [which] disturb them enormously,” but that relations had been certainly established with the Muslim world “against the crusader of the entire Christian world.”[28]For this purpose, secret organizations were established in Syria and Iraq that operated under the overall direction of the so-called “Committee of the Ottoman Forces in Syria [and] Palestine” organization (Suriye Filistin Kuvayı Osmaniye Heyeti).[29]

British intelligence was well aware of M. Kemal’s Pan-Islamist policies and sent regular reports from the region. One such report, dated December 28, 1919, claimed that the Turkish leader was taking advantage of every opportunity to spread information and propaganda in Aleppo, Damascus, and other cities and was calling on Muslims to abandon their internal misunderstandings and disagreements and to unite so that they could turn their weapons against the French. He claimed that Turkish combatants “would come soon to visit their Arab brothers, [together] they would repel the enemy, and…that [both Turks and Arabs] needed to live together as brothers in faith.”[30]Another report from January 17, 1921 relays the claim that Kemal spoke of “the [Turkish] army’s successes…[and] of uniting the peoples of Aleppo and Damascus and advancing toward southern Syria.”[31]It goes without saying that the western press was replete with reports on M. Kemal at the time, claiming alternately that he was a Unionist, an Islamist, or that he was pursuing Pan-Islamist policies.[32]

As we have seen, there are no significant differences between either Turkey’s past or present policies in the region, or, for that matter, between the West’s past and present reactions to them. This policy may be formulated as a “broadening of the borders to the extent that armed force allows.” If the conditions now prevailing in the Middle East bear a remarkable similarity to those of the period following World War I, there is good reason for this. As is well known, the present political borders in the Middle East were determined after the war as the result of the struggles between the two competing blocs, by the Turks and Bolsheviks on one side and the British and French on the other. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the U.S. interventions in Iraq and, more recently, the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War have all once again reopened the question of borders, effectively calling many of them into question. And it is not coincidental that the two competing blocs once again feature Turkey and Russia on one side, and the western powers on the other.

However, even while Erdoğan claims to be following in the footsteps of M. Kemal and works to draw the borders of the country according to M. Kemal’s vision, namely as broadly “as power and might will allow,” there is also one real differences between these two leaders and their situations. Turkey is a much stronger country today than it was in the period after World War I and thus has a better chance of extending the country’s borders to those of the National Pact of 1920.Indeed, it is not coincidental that Tayyip Erdoğan opened the discussion of both the National Pact and the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. The following words of Erdoğan, spoken in October 2016, are thus worth considering:

[At Lausanne] we were unfortunately unable to achieve the aims of our National Pact, either in regard to our western or southern borders. Some may see or attempt to argue that this situation was excusable due to the conditions of the time. But this approach’s explanation is only acceptable up to a certain point. Its essential flaw, however, is the mentality that has led to us to fundamentally accept and entrap ourselves within the confines of this situation, which was born out of hardships. We reject this view.”[33]

Erdoğan rejects what he considers an attempt by Western-Secular current of country to foist the Treaty of Lausanne as a victory.[34]In his opinion, “the reason for the security problems being experienced on… [Turkey’s] southern border are [our having] compromised on [our] National Pact.”[35]The essence of the matter is this: the conservative-Islamic current within Turkish politics believes that the western-leaning, secular, modernist bloc has failed to fulfill the promise of the National Pact, and they fully intend to make good on this promise.

There is no need to take up here the question of Erdoğan’s turning away from the West or the criticism that has been leveled at him as a result. The preference shown to the West shown by Turkey’s political elites and their decision to join NATO was a pragmatic move, one shaped in large part by the power balances and conditions that emerged in the second post-war world. In like fashion, the decision to “turn away from the East” was made within the prevailing conditions during the establishment of the First Republic. One can find numerous instances of M. Kemal extolling the non-western world: “The sun rises from the East”

“The revolt of the East is not a fable… The rebellion that the nations of Asia and Eastern Europe have forseen against the Western Imperialists and which we have termed the revolt of the East has long been imagined, [but has now] been carried to the field of action….”

Finally, the debate over which side of the current geo-political order Turkey will tie its fortunes to must be understood as dependent first and foremost on its own perceived geo-strategic interests and attempts to depict it in terms of simple and outdated cultural categories like “East” and “West” offer no insight. Frankly stated, the international system established in the wake of the First (and especially) Second World Wars has collapsed, and all of the global players, whether eastern or western have embarked on a search for new allies in an international system still in flux. And Turkey is engaged in this search as well.

Facing History

First, two events: on January 14, 2017, the People’s Democratic Party’s or HDP’s Istanbul Representative Garo Paylan spoke the following words at a press conference: “The Armenian people know what happened to them very well. I term th[ese events] as genocide.” As a result, an investigation was launched against him in accordance to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which prohibits “Publically Insulting the Turkish People, the State of the Turkish Republic or the Government of the Turkish Republic and the Defamation of the President.” In order to bring this case to trial under this penal code, the authorization of the Ministry of Justice was required, and the Ministry approved the move on December 7, 2017. The case is still pending decision.

On the anniversary of the September 6-7, 1955 Istanbul Pogrom carried out against Greeks, Armenians and Jews, once again, Garo Paylan, proposed that a Parliamentary investigation be launched in order to “bring forth the perpetrators, establish the facts on the lives and properties lost, compensate the victims for their material and immaterial losses and, through this, take one step forward in the name of confronting the past.” On October 4, 2018, the Speaker’s Office of the Parliament did not even process the motion, citing it to contain “vulgar and hurtful words.”

The truth depicted by these two events is very simple. In Turkey, to call for a confrontation with the past is still considered a crime and it is possible to launch an investigation into those who choose to put the topic in the spotlight. That an investigation was launched against Hrant Dink in 2005 using the 301, “Insulting Turkishness” Article, that this investigation was transformed into a huge lynch campaign and that it ultimately resulted in Dink’s assasination on January 19, 2007, is still remembered today.

These events that came to the forefront during Erdogan’s period are actually a result of the continuation of a historical tradition. Turkey has a law “Insulting Turkishness” from the very beginning and in the 1920s and 30s, during M. Kemal’s period, the government deployed the “Insulting Turkishness” Article in order to attempting to intimidate non-Muslim populations. Between 1926 and 1942, a total of 554 cases citing the “insulting Turkishness” Article were filed, more than 60% of which were directed against non-Muslims, who accounted for only 2% of the population. Evidently, there exists a continuity that extends from M. Kemal to Tayyip Edogan.

The issue of facing and confronting history being considered a crime is not merely limited to freedom of thought. There are other, more serious repercussions for Turkey stemming from its failure to confront history. Namely, this failure constitutes the fundamental reason for why Turkey experiences serious problems with regards to democracy, human rights and particularly with guaranteeing the basic rights and freedoms of the Kurds; it also serves as the underlying cause for the grave troubles Turkey encounters with establishing lasting peace with its neighbors and obtaining enduring security.

The history of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic is filled with large-scale massacres, deportations and the painful wounds they opened in their wake. Here are some examples from the events that occurred before the establishment of the Republic: the 1894-7 and 1904 massacres of Armenians during the Abdulhamit period; the 1909 massacre of Armenians in Adana; the ethnic cleansing of Greeks in 1913-14; the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide of 1915-18; the 1921 Pontus-Greek Genocide and the forced population exchanges of 1924. These policies of annihilation and deportation reduced the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire’s Anatolian region from 30% at the end of the 19thcentury to a mere 2%.

The same practices continued during the Republic period, this time also including the Kurds: the forced deportation of Armenians to Syria or Istanbul after 1927; the 1934 Pogrom of Jews in Thrace; the 1938 Dersim Genocide; the 1942 Wealth Tax and the 6-7 September 1955 Pogrom of Armenians, Greeks and Jews; the 1964 Deportation of Greeks; the annihilation of thousands of youth through executions and torture after the 1980 Military Coup; and the unsolved murders of thousands of Kurdish civilians during the 1990s only constitute some examples of the events that occurred during the Republic era.

Never in the history spanning from the establishment of the Republic to today, were any of these countless massacres and violations of human rights ever talked about openly or confronted honestly. Each one of these events was immediately ignored and denied. Not counting the limited acknowledgement of the 1938 Dersim Genocide by the AKP in 2011 – which anyway did not intend an honest confrontation of history, but only to steal favor from the perpetrators of this atrocity, which is the main opposition party today (CHP) – not once has confronting any of these events been on the political agenda. Instead, an intentional memory gap was produced, then filled with fabrications, and a new history, based on lies and untruths, created.

From the establishment of the Republic until now, these lies and denials formed the primary foundation of politics in Turkey. Yet the wellknown rule regarding these matters is very simple: if a particular history, which is filled with painful wounds, is ignored and the conditions and mentality that caused these wounds is not talked about, each denied injustice forms the basis for new injustices. To prevent the remembrance of crimes that were committed and the pain that they caused, to try to cover them up instead and put pressure on those who dare to remember them as in case of deputy Garo Paylan, means that you allow for them to be repeated again. Not speaking about the events undergone by individuals and societies and ignoring them constitute the foundation for feelings of insecurity. For this reason, the people and states of the region harbor tremendous feelings of uncerstainty and insecurity in regards to Turkey and believe that Turkey’s denial of its own past implies that they are capable and willing to commit the same crimes again. They are not entirely wrong in their assessment.

The groundwork for the policy of ignoring and denying the injustices and massacres of Ottoman-Turkish history was established by Talat Pasha at the 1916 Party Congress of the Committee of Union and Progress, while the extermination of Armenians was still ongoing. In his speech at the Congress, Talat Pasha claimed that the Christians – and the Armenians, in particular – represented the extention of foreign states within Turkey, that they were incited by these foreign powers, and that they stabbed the Ottoman Army in the back during the war. Thus, the Armenians were being forcibly relocated in order to protect the Army within the borders of the warfront. During this process of migration, explains the Pasha, there were occurences of “some disorderly movements;” however, he assures, inspection commissions had been distapched to the various regions in order to investigate these events and that the Armenian properties had been secured in order to protect them from any pillaging and looting.

Talat Pasha repeated the same remarks at the last Party Congress of the Committee of Union and Progress in 1918. This time, however, he added that “the true responsibility for the incidents that occurred [belonged] first and foremost” to the Christians themselves. These words spoken by Talat Pasha were repeated frequently by M. Kemal during the period of 1919-22. For example, in a talk he gave to Ankara’s intellectuals in December 1919, he expressed that “What ever befell the non-Muslims living in our land, happened as the result of their wild pursuit of a seperatist policy, in which they allowed themselves to become entangled in foreign plots and abused their privilages.”

On the first day of the 1922 Lausanne Peace Talks, the president of the Turkish Delegation, Ismet Inonu, gave a historical opening statement in which he developed the opinions expressed by Talat Pasha and M. Kemal on various occasions. The arguments put forth by Ismet Pasha constitute the basis of why the massacres against Christians are still ignored and denied today. Throughout the entire period of the Republic, all publications on this matter are comprised of the main ideas conveyed in this particular speech. Two very important publications should be added to this list; Esat Uras’ book, “The Armenians in history and the Armenian question” in 1950 and Turkish Historical Society’s book, “The Talat Pasha Telegrams: Historical Fact or Armenian Fiction?” in 1983.

The massacres and exterminations have not been the only objects of denial throughout the history of the Republic, however. The 611-page book, titled The Outline of Turkish History and written under the tutelage of M. Kemal in 1931, and the subsequent 4-volume textbook under the same title and based on the original work, not only removed in near totality the existence of the ancient peoples on this land, but also identified the non-Muslim populations as the sole source and cause for all of the disasters experienced throughout the country’s history and labeled as “internal enemies.” Moreover, in order to reinforce and fortify this notion, the books use extensive quotations from M. Kemal’s Speeches. To summarize, the practice of labeling non-Muslims and partially Kurds as “internal enemies” in textbooks throughout the history of the Republic was originally born in the 1930s.

It is against the backdrop of this mentality that, throughout the history of the Republic, the lives of Christians and Jews were rendered unbearable through the placement of legal, political and cultural obstacles that prevented them from attaining equal status as citizens of the country. This strategy made them clear that they were “unwanted” elements within Turkish Muslim society, and were pushed out “voluntarily” to emigrate. Through such policies of exclusion–policies that have on occasion taken the form of forced expulsion–Turkey’s current Christian and Jewish population, which in 1927 stood at 2.8 %, has fallen to a level so low as to be considered negligible.

We can assert that the foundations for these policies were actually put in place by Mustafa Kemal himself. In a 1923 speech before Adana’s guild members the Turkish leader had the following to say: “The Armenians have taken over our artisinal and craftsman lodges (sanat ocakları) to an extent as to be the owners of this country. Certainly, there can be no injustice or impudence greater than this. The Armenians have no rights in this prosperous and bountiful country. Your country belongs to you, to the Turks. This country has been Turkish [throughout] history. Therefore, it is Turkish and will remain Turkish for all eternity…. The Armenians and others have no rights here whatsoever. These blessed places are the pure and mighty country of the Turks.”[36]

If we believe today that confronting our past is a must; that without facing our history we cannot build a democratic state and society that respects human rights; and that our failure to do so will make it impossible for us to live in peace and security with our neighbors; then we have to recognize that we must reckon with a era of denial stretching from Talat Pasha to M. Kemal and continuing on with Tayyip Erdogan today. Erdogan is merely maintaining the very same policy, whose foundation was constructed in the 1920s and 30s – nothing more.

A democratic Turkey can only be built by criticizing the Tek Adam – “Single Man” regimes of both its past and its present.


[1]Berk Esen & Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey”, in: Third World Quarterly, Volume 37, Issue 9, 2016, pp., 1581-1606.
[2]Atatürk’ün Bütün Eserleri, Cilt 18, (Ankara: Kaynak Yayınları, 2006), s. 226
[3]T. Erdoğan’ın 16 Temmuz 2016’daki ilgili demeci:
[4]For both Ataturk’s original order as well as a translation by Murat Bardakçı, see:
[5]For the full text of the fatwa, see: Kazım Karabekir, İstiklal Harbimiz, (İstanbul: Türkiye Yayınevi, 1960), p. 638-39.
[6]ı şu anda Müze olan 1920 İlk Meclis binasında teknik nedenlerle yapılamadı ve 1924 İkinci Meclis binasında yapıldı.)
[8]Tutelary democracy is a type of diminished democracy wherein the elected government’s power is restrained by the military (or another vetoing power, such as the Constitutional Court), which intervenes in the political process through informal and usually extra-constitutional channels. The military’s legal–institutional role amounted to a virtual veto power over elected officials.
[9]For a more detailed analysis on the topic, see: Berk Esen & Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising competitive authoritarianism in Turkey,” in: Third World Quarterly, Volume 37, 2016; Issue 9, pp. 1581-1606.
[10]Gesine Schwan, Politik und Schuld, die zerstörische Macht des Schweigens, (Frankfurt a.M.: Fisher, 1999), s. 164
[11]The official electoral party platform entitled the AK Party Vision for 2023: Politics, Society [&] State” and introduced at its September 30, 2012 party congress: “Henceforth, the options of a party-affiliated presidency, semi-presidential system or presidential system should be debated within this framework.” It must be added that the presidential system is an unchanging subject in Turkish political life. It was first formulated as a political goal in 1969 by the National Order Party, the first openly conservative Islamist party in the multi-party period. It has since been mentioned or espoused at various periods by different politicians. (, accessed: 7 October 2018)
[12]See: 7 October 2018)
[13]Here we do not even touch upon the economic and financial critiques that can be leveled against the AKP, chief among them nepotism and corruption.
[14]In fact, Erdoğan never openly advocated for a unification of the country’s legislative, executive, and judicial organs, he simply complained about the overlapping authorities and struggles for power between these different areas of government. For him, the biggest problem was that the civilian and military bureaucracies had hindered the proper functioning of the executive branch, particularly through the exploitation of the legal branch. He then claimed that this problem had been solved through the recent changes to the country’s constitution, and that a coordination and accomodation had been reached between the different branches. For Erdoğan’s various declarations on this topic over the years, see:,P900bXvceUi6ICA1UIOccw(2012);;;; (accessed: 8 Ekim 2018)
[15]Taha Akyol, Atatürk’ün İhtilal Hukuku, (İstanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2012), pp. 42-43.
[16]Atatürk’ün Bütün Eserleri, Cilt 8, (İstanbul: Kaynak Yayınları, 2002), pp. 73-6
[18]Taha Akyol, op. cit., pp. 46.
[20]ibid., p. 47.
[21]Barış Mahmutoğlu, 1923-1960 Yılları Arasında Chp’nin Seçim Çalışma ve Propagandaları, unpublished doctoral thesis, Erzurum 2015, pp. 192-3.
[22]Taha Akyol, op. cit., p. 47.
[23]Mustafa Kemal, TBMM Gizli Celse Zabıtları, Cilt II, p. 355, Ankara 1985
[25]Mustafa Öztürk, “TBMM’nin 1924 Yılı Yılbaşı Hatırası Misakı Milli Haritası, Askeri Tarih Bülteni”, yıl 25, sayı: 48, Şubat 2000, p. 29.
[26]Atatürk’ün Bütün Eserleri, Cilt 5, (İstanbul: Kaynak Yayınları, 2001) pp. 353-4.
[27]ibid., Cilt 6, pp. 407-08.
[28]Atatürk’ün Bütün Eserleri, Cilt 10, (İstanbul: Kaynak Yayınları, 2002), pp. 79-80.
[29]Salahi R. Sonyel, Türk Kurtuluş Savaşı ve Dış Politika, Cilt 1, (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1986), pp. 189-90.
[30]ibid., p. 191.
[31]M. Metin Hülagü, “Türk Kurtuluş Savaşı Dönemi Türkiye-İslam Ülkeleri Münasebetleri”, 30 July 2018)
[32]For a compilation of reports appearing in the western press, see: Taner Akçam, İnsan Hakları ve Ermeni Sorunu, İttihat ve Terakki’den Kurtuluş Savaşına,(Ankara: İmge Yayınları, 1999), pp. 521-527.
[33]Speech, 19 September 2016:
[34]Speech, 29 September 2016:
[35]Speech, 10 November 2017:
[36]Atatürk’ün Söylev ve Demeçleri, Cilt II, (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu, 1989), p. 130.

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