Taner Akçam
Aug 03 2018

The second republic copies the first Republic of Turkey

A year after the reformist Committee of Union and Progress ushered in the Ottoman Empire’s Second Constitutional Era on July 23/24, 1908, it passed a law calling for the annual commemoration of the date as "Freedom Day".  

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the founders of the new Republic of Turkey would abolish "Freedom Day" commemoration and replace it in 1935 with “Victory Day" - August 30.

October 29, 1923, the day the Turkish parliament declared the republic - Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s First Republic - was adopted as another national holiday in 1925. “Republic Day” is still a holiday.

What might be the official date celebrating the founding of the Second Turkish Republic, established by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? It could be June 24 - the day the 2018 elections awarding Erdoğan greatly expanded powers, July 7 - the opening day of parliament in the Second Republic, July 9 – the day Erdoğan was sworn in before the assembly, or July 15 - the day of the 2016 failed coup attempt. The strongest candidate is July 15. I wonder, will we have to wait until the year 2022 when this date first falls on a Friday?

Symbols matter. April 23, 1920, the day the first National Assembly of the First Republic convened was a Friday. The first session began following the noon prayers at Ankara’s Hacı Bayram Mosque. July 13, 2018 was also a Friday. Erdoğan held his first official cabinet meeting of the Second Republic on that day, after the noon prayer at Hacı Bayram mosque. The meeting and ceremony were held at the First Republic’s parliament, the place where Atatürk, the founder of Turkey, delivered his famous speech, or Nutuk, in 1927.

Erdoğan gave a speech at the ceremony containing an interesting message about “rupture and continuity" with the First Republic, saying that "under this blessed roof, we are taking the first step of this historical transformation".

All of this, in my opinion, is no mere a coincidence. I believe Erdoğan has studied the life and deeds of Atatürk very closely.

I repeat: symbols matter. Erdoğan appears to be imitating Atatürk's behaviour. He sees clear parallels between the conditions surrounding the establishment of his republic and those during the founding of the First Republic. And of course, he would like the details of his reign to parallel those of Atatürk’s era.

And he is not completely mistaken. Conditions in our region, the Middle East, somewhat parallel those of the 1918-1923 period. The Middle East today very much looks like the post-World War One era with the great powers struggling for control and influence in various territories, especially over the control of energy resources, and how the local powers position themselves between various great powers.

On one side is Putin's Russia - the Bolsheviks in 1918 - and Erdoğan's Turkey – then led by Atatürk. Opposing them is the U.S. -led Western bloc – then led by Britain and France. The Syrian Kurds are currently filling in for the Caucasian Armenians of the post-war period.

My intention here is not to prove similarities between the two periods. I am simply trying to stress the need to be mindful of our past when attempting to understand the present.

We can even take the comparison between these two periods a step further: not only are the conditions of these two eras similar, but the way the founders of the First and the Second Republics are interpreting circumstances, identifying the political problems and offering solutions to these obstacles mirror each other as well.

Both republics are trying/tried to and struggling/struggled with what and how to build a sustainable country from the remains of a collapsed empire. Also, almost all the solutions oscillate between on one hand, the desire to be a powerful country in the region, and on the other, the nagging fear of disintegration and dismemberment. This polarisation of worldview had been a constant characteristic of Turkey’s foreign policy for the century of its existence.

It is why the politicians of both eras have tended to put security concerns at the centre of all foreign and internal policy decisions. They tend to view all challenges through the filter of threats from "internal and external traitors" and thus base all policy decisions on the goal of removing this threat.

The most striking similarity between these two eras is in Turkey's Syrian politics. Atatürk’s First Republic's Syrian policies were not so different from the current government's approach. On the contrary, there are significant similarities. For the First Republic, the country’s borders had still not been fully resolved or solidified.

"We will draw our borders to best serve our interests; they will be determined by our strength and will," Atatürk said, a phrase still very well known by the Turkish public.

Many people do not know that, beyond this vague description of Turkey's borders, Turkish leaders asserted the cities of Aleppo and Deir al-Zor were within Turkey’s national borders. Atatürk worked very hard to form a federation or confederation with Syria.

The new Turkish Republic, under the leadership of Atatürk, undertook a number of military and political activities, including establishing and maintaining secret organisations within Syria and Iraq between 1919-20, all against the background of this understanding of national borders. It must be stated here that Atatürk made the statements about Deir al-Zor after Turkey signed an agreement with France in October 1921 and withdrew from Syria.

The founders of the Second Republic are well aware of the Middle Eastern policies of the First Republic. They reopened discussions on the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that established Turkey’s borders for this reason only. With an eye toward the possible extension of the country’s national borders, the Second Republic’s leadership is imitating the policies of the founders of the First Republic.

Let me repeat my theory: Erdoğan has closely studied the construction of the First Republic very carefully and is taking calculated steps accordingly. Thus, for the opposition to criticise the Erdoğan administration while disregarding the similarities between the policies of the First and Second Republics is both ignorant and politically naive.

If we fail to recognise the similarities with the 1918-23 period or to grasp that the country’s current leaders perceive it that way, we will fall into the trap that many leftist, democratic, secular-progressive, and liberal groups have fallen into and we will not have a political vision that goes beyond that of the Paris and Berlin’s approach towards the region.

Opposition groups must recognise that simply cheering every attack from Western countries on Erdoğan's human rights and democracy abuses also risks making them look like an extension of Western liberal-imperialism in the region. To repeat a widely accepted rule in international relations: the leaders of democratic countries lie more than dictators!

We can observe the same dichotomy: the desire - even sense of entitlement - to be an influential player in the region accompanied by the persistent fear of dismemberment at the hands of internal and external enemies. One of the direct consequences of putting security concerns at the core of the state structure is tendency to establish and protect a centralised, bureaucratic, and authoritarian state apparatus.

One of the main criticisms of Erdoğan is that he is trying to establish a dictatorship and that he wants to micromanage every decision of the state. Even so, Erdoğan is only preserving and rebuilding the founding philosophy of the First Republic.

Let us leave aside the fact that the leaders of the ruling Republican People's Party (CHP) in the 1920s wanted to model the First Republic after Italian fascism, or that, until the late 1940s, Turkey had a single party system and Atatürk hand-picked each of its representatives. Instead, let us just read an editorial in the party organ Cumhuriyet from November 3,1930:

"Some representatives of the Turkish Assembly who are still living in the past perceived the state and the nation as two separate entities. The country cannot progress with this ancient, decrepit idea.

The modern state is sovereign. It can and must control everything: the water, the homestead, the height of the ceiling, the width of the window. That is the purpose of the modern state, to interfere with everything." [Sevan Nişanyan, Yanlış Cumhuriyet, pp. 31-2, Kırmızı Yay., 2008]

Another major criticism directed to Erdoğan is that, by consolidating the powers of legislative, executive, and judiciary, he has weakened Turkish bureaucratic traditions. According to this criticism, Erdoğan has reduced the red tape between the party and the state by turning state institutions to fixtures of his own party.

Once again, Erdoğan is simply restoring the original philosophy of the First Republic. Let us reiterate a well-known example. According to a law passed on June 18, 1936, the interior minister of Turkey became the secretary-general of Atatürk’s governing CHP. And local governors became the local CHP leaders. With that decision, the state and the CHP - the only legal party in the country - became indistinguishable.

According to Article 9 of the Law (regulating) Officials then in effect, civil servants could not be members of political parties. Hilmi Uran, deputy interior minister, noticed the contradiction and organised a commission to amend the law. The problem was also brought to the attention of Atatürk.

In his memoirs, Uran said:

Atatürk read the material, and, after a little thought, he said: 'I do not see the need to change this article. Because the purpose of this article is to state that the civil servants cannot be members of political societies other than [italics added] my party [CHP]; I think this article is beneficial and therefore it should not be amended." [For more information: Ayhan Aktar, http://www.duzceyerelhaber.com/Ayhan-AKTAR /6567-Atatürk-ve-law]

It is possible to point out further similarities between the First and Second Republics; from their attitudes toward personal freedoms to the control of the judiciary; from their common goal to establish a "moral society” to the principles by which the future generations are to be raised. That is a job best left to competent Turkish academics. What needs to happen is to transfer those studies to the political discourse. I would call on academics knowledgeable in these subjects to write op-eds for the general populace.

In the meantime, the long and short of it is that we cannot oppose the Second Republican while defending the first one. Those who wish to resist Erdoğan's Second Republic should first look deep into the First Republic and use that knowledge to fight for a more democratic Third Republic. Otherwise, they will only serve to legitimise and support the current regime.

The First and Second Republics represent similar responses to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. There really is little difference between them. Those who want to establish the Third Republic should be able to demonstrate a level of political stamina and a willingness to criticise both.

This is an invitation to an honest reckoning with the past, and to confront both republics.

This invitation should not be interpreted as a call to ignore or disparage the democratic achievements of the last century. Rather, it is a call to confront the problems that Turkey is facing today - in all parts of Turkish society - from the perspective of the previous century.

What I am proposing is a radical revision of our approach to understanding our past. But first, we need to redefine our politics and our philosophy, and no rush - the time is already a quarter past 12.