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HomeHeadlineTurkey's Republic at 100: What Are We Celebrating?

Turkey’s Republic at 100: What Are We Celebrating?

The concept of the republic is a technical term in political science that refers to the issue of sovereignty. Monarchies defined sovereignty through the monarch, while post-monarchies defined it through popular sovereignty. This shift was a necessity. In a country without a monarch, the transfer of monarchical sovereignty to another individual would naturally mean a new monarch and a new monarchy. Therefore, sovereignty was transferred to the abstract concept of “the people,” allowing a small elite group to wield it on behalf of the people. The republic thus became the opposite of the monarchical state.

However, being the opposite of monarchies, the republic, while a category in itself, does not change the fact that republics within this category can have very different characteristics. Simply being a republic does not determine the specific characteristics of a state’s regime. Being a republic does not directly dictate a state’s political system, regime architecture, political orientation, values, preferences, or specific features. Therefore, within the category of republics, there can be various regime characteristics, including liberal democratic, authoritarian, fascist, communist, theocratic, and more. North Korea, Iran, and Germany are all republics, but their regimes are vastly different!

Turkey is a republic established under its own unique historical circumstances, but merely being a republic does not provide much insight into what the state’s regime actually is. What matters is the ability to transform the republic into a liberal democratic state based on universal human rights.

The Turkish Republic aimed to build a nation-state. This inclination actually began during the Ottoman Empire’s Ittihat and Terakki (Committee of Union and Progress) period. The Ittihatists wanted to prevent the disintegration of the Ottoman state. To achieve this, they attempted to utilize all three strategies of the Ottoman Empire’s “three forms of policy.” However, preserving Ottoman ethnic elements through the lens of Ottoman identity proved unfeasible. They then operationalized the Islamic/umma identity to hold Muslim Ottoman communities together. Yet, this did not work, especially because the Balkan Muslims and Arabs did not embrace it.

As a result, only one strategy from the “three forms of policy” remained: ethnic nationalism. The final years of the empire were spent trying to create an ethnically homogenous nation. This highly pathological strategy resulted in a series of wrong policies, including the Armenian Genocide, Greek Genocide, and Assyrian Genocide. In contrast, the Ittihatists’ dream of a “greater empire,” leading to adventurous and dangerous political inclinations like reclaiming lost territories and conquering the Turanian lands where Turkish communities lived. To pursue this, they entered World War I, and ultimately, the Ottoman Empire lost the war and collapsed.

The Kemalists established the republic on this legacy.

In 1923, Anatolia was predominantly inhabited by Turkish-speaking and Kurdish-speaking populations. Kurds were a minority and politically ineffective. The Kemalist movement was composed of cadres that were a continuation of the Ittihatists. Many prominent Kemalists, including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had ties to the Ittihatist past. Their ideas, particularly regarding ethno-Turkic nationalism, were inherited from the Ittihatists.

Once they consolidated their power, they denied that the Ittihatists had carried out ethnic cleansing in Anatolia. Furthermore, they adopted the strategy of assimilating the Kurds to create an ethnically homogeneous country. In other words, they continued the policy chosen by the Ittihatists. The foundation of this policy was to deny the existence of Kurds. However, they knew that they couldn’t eliminate the Kurds by doing this because the Kurds existed, and this reality wouldn’t change through identity denial. In this context, the Eastern Reform Plan (Şark Islahat Planı) was initiated by Atatürk’s directives and decisions in 1925. This policy of assimilation, rooted in Ittihatist ideology, has continued for the past 100 years.

While the Republic presented itself to us, the citizens, as the completion of a democratic mission by removing the monarchy and caliphate, it did not teach us that in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, there was not an absolute monarchy, but a constitutional monarchy. The Republic did not inform us that in the later stages of the Ottoman Empire, it was not the Sultan but a party and its ministers who governed the country.

The Republic concealed the fact that the Ottoman Meclis-i Mebusan (Parliament) constituted the government in Ankara, known as the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM). Official history portrayed the transition from monarchy to republic as the pinnacle of a historical democracy mission. Atatürk’s 15-year single-party rule from 1923 to 1938, the nominal elections with no real alternative parties during his tenure, and İsmet İnönü’s continuation of single-handed rule for another seven years were not discussed. The fact that the authoritarian legacy persisted as a guardian system even after the transition to a multi-party system (to become a founding member of the UN) was not given importance. In the last 100 years, Turkey has not undergone the transformations required by the changes in the world and Turkish sociology.

Despite the rhetoric of the Republic, it failed to establish a civic identity policy that recognizes democratic, ethnic identity characteristics and aims for equal citizenship. Just being a republic does not mean that we have to tolerate Turkey’s extremely racist policies.

Apart from this example, despite emphasizing the Republic rhetorically, it failed to elevate the country to the level of “contemporary civilization” based on democracy and the rule of law. It tried with good intentions but couldn’t succeed. The main goal was to create a homogeneous society, so you cannot avoid fascist policies required by social engineering.

Turkey also squandered opportunistic advantages that came its way with recklessness and irrationality. In the post-1945 world order, Turkey had the chance to integrate with the West. It became a founding member of the Council of Europe and joined NATO. It had the opportunity to participate in the European integration project. The process initiated with the Ankara Agreement in the 1960s paralleled Greece’s process, but Turkey failed to transform its system, causing this process to stagnate. While Greece became a member of the then-European Community in the early 1980s, Turkey sabotaged itself once again, this time due to the 1980 military coup.

Similarly, the democratization process that began in the late 1990s was crowned by the chance to start accession negotiations with the EU in 2004, but it was sabotaged once again due to the abrupt decline in the years from 2011 to 2016. Turkey, already struggling with a half-baked rule of law, entered its darkest period as the rule of law completely collapsed. As of today, in all development indexes, Turkey is far behind not only European countries but even actors from the world’s most underdeveloped regions.

In a country where basic freedoms and universal human rights have not been established and implemented, where there is no democracy and rule of law, where oppression prevails, where economic conditions are terrible, and where political atmosphere is dominated by Islamic-nationalist ideologies and parties – in short, Turkey is a very sick country in all fundamental aspects. Furthermore, due to identity policies built on the official history thesis of the Republic, a significant portion of the population lacks the ability to see these problems. Moreover, there is a rigid surveillance policy by the regime against those who honestly highlight these problems and demand improvement.

A republic that lacks fundamental freedoms, universal human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and that produces oppression, cannot have any meaningful significance.

So, what are we celebrating on the 100th anniversary?

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Dr. MEHMET EFE CAMAN
Dr. MEHMET EFE CAMAN
Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.
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