Republic of Turkey: An unfinished republican project
This article will summarize the past 100 years and the current state of affairs in Turkey as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. The article contends the Republic falls short of making a positive difference in the lives of most of its people economically, politically, and socially. The goal of surpassing modern civilizations set in the founding years of the Republic has yet to be significantly met. The goals of secularism, gender equality, poverty eradication, and promoting science and the arts have not been achieved as intended during its early years. To comprehend this situation, we must assess the present day and delve into the social and political environment of the Republic's founding years, as well as crucial policy failures. I've included a section from my previous article on the Republic because the subject is still relevant.
The founding cadres of the Turkish Republic relied on secularism and popular sovereignty, although more on a rhetorical level. Hence, we must initially examine the level of adherence to these principles in present-day Turkey. Over the past twenty-one years of AKP's (Justice and Development Party) rule, which claims to be conservative democratic but is influenced by political Islamist ideology, secularism has nearly vanished in terms of implemented policies despite its presence as an unalterable constitutional article. The Turkish government is defying secularism by imposing religious beliefs on its people, while the main opposition remains unresponsive. To give specific examples of this situation, consider: religion classes are required from elementary school through university, and the content of these courses is chosen to explain why Sunni Islam is superior to other beliefs; some sects that openly declare their desire to establish a theocratic order have taken control of various state institutions; the Presidency of Religious Affairs, an institution of the state, engages in activities that promote and support only Sunni Islam in society; the exclusion of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution—which is acknowledged by every highly esteemed scientist in the world—from the biology curriculum; the direct targeting of groups within society who are atheists or not Sunni Muslims; the prohibition of artistic creations because they violate religious teachings; and, more recently, the attempt to structure economic policy under the Koranic concept of nas.
The CHP (Republican People's Party), despite its claim to defend the Republic's achievements and Ataturk's legacy, remains silent on anti-secular practices and seeks friendly relations with anti-secular parties. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an Alevi himself, cannot address the challenges faced by cemevis, places where Alevis can freely practice their beliefs, and instead focuses on constitutional guarantees for the headscarf. Kilicdaroglu unnecessarily incorporates Islamic terminology like "halalleşme, kul hakkı" into his political discourse. The opposition parties to the right of the CHP have no interest in safeguarding secularism. Currently, socialist political parties and organizations, notably the Kurdish Freedom Movement, incorporate secularism with a libertarian approach in their political structures.
The word republic includes the principle of popular sovereignty. A republic is a regime system where political sovereignty belongs to the people of a country, not to a specific person or family. The term "Cumhuriyet" is derived from the Arabic, which means "crowd, people."
Turkey adopted a presidential system after the April 16, 2017, referendum, replacing popular sovereignty with an elected one-person regime. The presidential system granted the president not only executive powers but also the authority to intervene in the legislature and judiciary. In the new system, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had nearly complete control over the country's fate. He has full authority over decision-making, from broad state policies to intricate regulations. All state institutions are now capable of making independent decisions with the president's absolute authority. The legislative powers of the National Assembly have been significantly restricted.
The principle of separation of powers has vanished in the new order, where the president directly appoints members of the higher judiciary. Turkey appears to have turned into an elected dictatorship, as many prominent constitutional professors concur. Elections fail to truly represent the people's will because of the ruling party's control of the state and media, limiting the opposition's access to the public sphere. Universities, where young and educated people can learn unbiasedly, are now controlled mainly by the regime through appointed rectors. The environment where freedom of thought, freedom of the press, and academic freedoms are severely restricted shows that the principle of national sovereignty, emphasized by the Republic's founding cadres, has vanished in practice.
The Republic of Turkey is politically antidemocratic, economically lagging developed countries, socially unjust, and plagued by class exploitation as of 2023. Since the Republic's inception, these characteristics have mainly remained the same. Over the past century, non-Turkish-Sunni Muslims, along with a portion of the working class and intellectuals, have faced massacres, discrimination, and oppression. From the start, the Republic was devoid of social and democratic attributes. The lack of social qualities refers to the absence of a social state and the barriers marginalized groups face, who only possess their labor as a commodity in their struggle for rights.
Discrimination towards the non-Sunni Islamic population, which accounts for at least forty percent of the population, directly correlates with the absence of democratic values. Specifically, the political regime has systematically marginalized various groups, including non-Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, non-believers, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Circassians, Arabs, Laz (Pontus), Roma, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Some periods saw massacres, while others labeled them traitors. The great oppression, torture, and executions that laborers, particularly those on the socialist left or intellectuals who generate ideas, should also be considered. By examining the historical background, we discover that three influential factors played a role.
The population of Turkey has undergone an extraordinary transformation. The population structure changed significantly because of massacres, forced migration, and massive population shifts. The Armenian Genocide in 1915 and the Assyrian Genocide, as well as the Greek Pontic Genocides in the Aegean and Black Sea regions from 1914 to 1919-22, and the forced migration of Greeks in 1923-24, led to the loss of around thirty percent of the population. This group comprised the most advanced portion of the Ottoman Empire. Among the destroyed and uprooted Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians, there was a population that included a significant portion of the Ottoman bourgeois class, working class, and intelligentsia.
The initial capitalist class of the newly formed Republic of Turkey arose through the seizure and transfer of capital accumulations from the genocide victims and forcibly displaced individuals by the newly established government. In opposition to aristocrats, the bourgeois class in Europe stood for progressive values such as separation of powers, the rule of law, and individual freedoms from the 17th to the 18th centuries, only to become conservative and lose its progressive nature when the working class emerged in the 19th century. However, the national bourgeoisie in the Turkish Republic, created by the state, was a submissive class devoid of progressive bourgeois values, unlike its Western counterparts. This situation persisted with minimal change in the subsequent years. During each military coup, TÜSIAD, representing the big bourgeoisie, supported and acknowledged the junta. The number of strikes organized by Armenian, Greek, and Jewish workers in the last period of the Ottoman Empire, or the level of organization of the socialist parties founded by Armenian intellectuals in particular, would not be reached by Muslim peoples, at least ninety percent of whose population were peasants, until the 1960s.
The second factor was the alliance between the National Struggle leaders and Anatolian notables and landowners. After the Republic was established, this would be the most significant hurdle to land reform. Most Turkish people, poor and uneducated peasants, relied on landlords, hindering their development and awareness of their rights. İsmet Pasha, leading the CHP in 1946, paid the price for his daring land reform by causing a split in the party and the emergence of the Democrat Party, which lost the 1950 elections. The ruling elites of the Democrat Party were composed of landlords. Adnan Menderes, the party's leader for a decade, was a landlord. Menderes and the Democrat Party, with a limited understanding of democracy because of their social class, prioritized winning elections over democratic rights and freedoms during their time in power. This has become a customary practice. The right-wing parties that came after the DP have consistently won elections but have resisted democratization efforts except for representing national interests.
The Republic's founding cadres were against democracy and social rights because of their ideology. These cadres carried on the ideology of the Committee of Union and Progress. The ideology had a political dimension centered on ethnic Turkish nationalism and authoritarian modernism. The goal was to establish a unified Turkish-Muslim population in Turkey. The goal was to shape the population into one unified group, both ethnically and religiously. Any means, even genocide, were acceptable for this purpose. These cadres were highly authoritarian because of their military background.
The state has forcefully suppressed democratic demands and punished intellectuals since its establishment. During the founding years of the Republic, women's organizations were forcibly closed and replaced by the state's official women's organization, and Nazım Hikmet faced imprisonment while Sabahattin Ali was murdered. Emerging organized structures demanding democratic rights outside state control were consistently viewed with suspicion in subsequent years, and laws hindered their development. Many democratic and left-wing intellectuals were killed, imprisoned, or forced to flee abroad.
The economic-social dimension of the ideology was defined by a leadership composed of military-civilian bureaucrats who allied with landlords and vehemently opposed socialist thought. The primary aim was to establish a state-controlled capitalist class. The working class was prohibited from organizing. The Takrir-i Sükun law of 1925 banned all trade union movements. Although there were classes, discussing class politics was forbidden. With the rise of the capitalist class in the 1950s, the state's regulatory role declined, yet it became increasingly intolerant of the class movement in the 1960s. This led to military coups in 1971 and 1980 to regain control over the working class.
The founding of the Republic involved the interaction of these three factors. The working class and socialists were also targeted by dominant nationalism, for example. The early years of the Republic saw population engineering targeting non-Muslim communities, which were later extended to the Kurds, the second largest ethnic group. Thousands of Kurds lost their lives because of these policies. The 2013 Gezi Uprising showed the state's authoritarian stance, resulting in the deaths of twenty-two individuals and the injury of thousands, with most casualties caused by security forces. Nowadays, LGBTQ+ individuals are being targeted by the state and facing multiple obstacles in expressing themselves and establishing a living environment.
In summary, for the republican regime to remain faithful to its principles, it must eliminate barriers to the sovereignty for all, not just a select group. To bring about change, anti-establishment political movements must take a dominant position in society, surpassing parties in power and opposition. The topics of today's conversation are the democratic left, socialist political organizations, class-conscious workers, Kurds, oppressed ethnic identities, intellectuals opposing state ideology, the women's movement, and the burgeoning ecological movements. As these subjects strengthen and develop their collective struggle, the unfinished Republican project will reach completion, and a genuine social and democratic republic will emerge.
*The article was first published in Siyasi Haber on October 30, 2023. It was adapted to English for the Gerçek News readers.