On October 29, Istanbul woke up earlier than usual. It was the morning of the republic’s 94th anniversary. Near the Dolmabahce Palace, where modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, breathed his last 14 years after the last Ottoman was expelled in 1924, a young man astride a Yamaha struggled to take a selfie with a Turkish flag draping a building behind him. The selfie done, he punched his fist in the air and shouted, “Mustafa Kemal, Mustafa Kemal”. Kemalist? “No, no, I am AKP, Erdogan, Erdogan.”
At the Pera Palace, the hotel that opened in 1892 and counts among its guests the likes of Agatha Christie, who during her stay in Room 411 wrote, people like to believe, a good part of Murder on the Orient Express, a young couple readied for a pre-wedding shoot. Why here? “But why not? Haven’t you looked up Room 101? That’s the Ataturk room. He was a regular here.” The elderly onlooker couldn’t conceal his pride, because the venue had been chosen carefully.
In Istanbul, and across Turkey, Ataturk and his secular vision are being redefined, co-opted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Shedding their image of a conservative Islamic entity, they are charting a new national narrative, one that seeks to reduce Kemalist ideology to the margins, and ingrain in the Turkish consciousness, what one AKP member calls the pride and goodness that flows from the marriage of nationalism and political Islam.
A former football player and a rising star of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi of the Islamists), Erdogan became mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and began to deliver on fronts that were already being counted among the failures of the existing regime — from water shortage in the city to the mess on the roads. His wait for real power ended seven years later when he floated the AKP in 2001. By then, Turkey’s economy was in a shambles, and its people, especially the Anatolian middle class and businessmen, were weary of the Kemalist elite.
The elections in November 2002 saw the AKP corner more than a third of the national vote, and two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. A legal hitch made Erdogan sit out a few months before he became prime minister in March 2003. He has not looked back since, although allegations of corruption, authoritarianism, muzzling of the press, silencing of dissent and obstruction of justice have roiled his government’s years in power. But his commitment to the free market, overtures to foreign investors, emphasis on infrastructure, reform of labour laws, education and healthcare systems cemented his position. He remained prime minister until August 2014 when he became president.
And then came July 15, 2016. A failed coup attempt by a section of the armed forces, which claimed 250 lives, saw Erdogan ordering people onto the streets at night to take on tanks and soldiers. It was followed by a crackdown so severe that it set off alarm bells across Western capitals. As Turkey’s allies flinched, a state of emergency was declared — it continues till date. The purge in the armed forces, police, judiciary, private and public sectors has already landed an estimated 60,000 behind bars. Another 2,00,000 have either been fired or suspended.
Yet the failed coup and the hunt for the “enemies of the state” appear to have strengthened the AKP and Erdogan’s resolve to chart a new national narrative, one that invokes and rewrites Ataturk in a new age and time, and prepares the country for elections due in 2019. Local polls are due in March 2019 and presidential and parliamentary elections in November that year.
Justifying the purge, Ankara says the coup attempt was the brainchild of Fetullah Gulen — a cleric, he left Turkey for the United States in 1999 and made Pennsylvania his home — who instructed his Gulenist followers in the military, police and judiciary to snatch power. The government refers to them as FETO, the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation, which, it says, handpicked, raised and trained talented students and placed them in key institutions, including the military. FETO is blamed for the “disinformation campaign” against Turkey, especially in the West.
The failed coup, Erdogan supporters say, is “a turning point in our democracy” because all parties united “in defence of the state, its institutions”. A year ago, Nabi Avci, a minister then, made the same point: “Every single citizen did their best that night. Our nation, with all its elements, showed great foresight.” The first bridge over the Bosphorus, which connects Istanbul’s Europe to Istanbul’s Asia, is now officially the July 15 Martyrs Bridge.
If the coup attempt and its aftermath are dictating much of what is happening inside Turkey in the countdown to the 2019 elections, which Erdogan says will not be advanced, the country’s external policies are being influenced more by developments in the immediate neighbourhood. There has been a perceptible shift away from the West in the months since the coup bid — among other things, Turkey wants the United States to extradite Gulen — and the country has looked east to Russia and Iran for settlements in Syria and Iraq, given the military collapse of the Islamic State and its own battles with Kurdish militiamen along the frontiers with Syria and Iraq. It considers the YPG as an extension of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) with which it has been fighting a bloody insurgency in the southeast of the country.
Last week, Erdogan travelled to Sochi on the Black Sea to sit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani for a way out in Syria which will leave Bashar al-Assad in power with a changed constitution. Russia and Iran have been key to the survival of the Assad regime while Turkey has been on the other side, propping its opponents, sheltering and arming the Free Syrian Army. Ties between Ankara and Moscow have been on a rollercoaster — if they plummeted after the downing of a Russian war jet near the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015 and the killing of the Russian ambassador in Ankara a year later, they warmed up considerably after Erdogan expressed regret for the former incident. Turkey has announced it is buying S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.
It is this realignment that is being keenly watched by Turkey’s Western allies. Within the country too, this has not gone unnoticed. Erdogan supporters resent the long wait for EU membership, and criticism of the internal crackdown and an anti-West sentiment is increasing by the day. The changing geopolitics and Turkey’s internal upheavals have brought it to the crossroads, again.