Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has been increasingly fashionable to declare that Kemalism – Turkey’s dominant political ideology since the founding of the republic in 1923 – is on life support. Successive governments have paid lip service to Kemalism, particularly since the military has always viewed itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalist principles and crossing Kemalist red lines has been the best way to precipitate a military coup, but the AKP is viewed as hollowing out Kemalism through its electoral dominance. Most people immediately associate Kemalism with secularism and Westernization, and whether it be the AKP’s battle to make wearing a headscarf acceptable in universities or the controversial decision to allow middle schoolers to attend imam hatip religious schools, the government certainly does not appear to feel that Kemalism should constrain its policies.
It is not just the AKP, however, that has embraced this trend. The opposition CHP, which was essentially created to translate the precepts of Kemalism into tangible policies, has also seemed to go through a post-Kemalist phase. In July, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu defended charges that his party has moved away from Kemalism by declaring that Kemalism is a dynamic ideology and that he rejects a “traditional” interpretation of Kemalism. Kılıçdaroğlu’s elevation to CHP leader was widely viewed as heralding a new direction for the party, which has been out of power for decades, and part of this new direction was a greater focus on social liberalism and less of a focus on traditional Kemalist principles.
Kemalism, however, was always about much more than secularism, and the CHP’s current line of attack against the government demonstrates that Kemalist principles still carry some weight. Kemalism has six arrows, and the two that bear on recent events are republicanism and populism. Republicanism meant popular sovereignty, freedom, and legal equality, and stood in stark opposition to the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate. While Atatürk’s idea of republicanism was based on the French model, the pre-democratic reality of Turkish republicanism was a paternalistic dictatorship containing aspects of liberal rule. Republicanism in the Kemalist sense meant sovereignty of the people as the basis of the state rather than sovereignty of the sultan, and the idea that the state existed to further the advancement of its citizens rather than the glory of a royal dynasty. Connected to this was the idea of populism, which was the notion that the Turkish people should be mobilized in the name of social progress and modernity, but also encapsulated a sense of solidarity among disparate societal or professional groups. Unity was essential in Atatürk’s mind to building a modern state, and he believed that only through popular unity and solidarity had Turkey achieved its independence. Populism was operationalized in a way that would ensure unity among different groups and eliminate class conflict by enacting socioeconomic and educational reforms meant to achieve equality and social mobility. This tied into republicanism, since equality and unity required the rejection of the Ottoman sultanate as it privileged a ruling class above the people. It was also a response to Marxism and the concept of revolutionary class struggle, and was meant to forestall any such possibility in Turkey. Throughout the 1930s, populism was used to push off dealing with potentially disruptive social issues by repeating that there were no class or social fissures in Turkey, and among the six principles of Kemalism this was the one that gained the most widespread acceptance prior to WWII.
During the parliamentary debate yesterday over the next budget, the Kılıçdaroğlu accused Prime Minister Erdoğan of running roughshod over republican principles by trying to circumvent the Grand National Assembly’s role in budget planning. Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that Erdoğan and the AKP are trying to elevate themselves above the republic, which Erdoğan vehemently denied and said that making comparisons between Turkey’s economic performance under the AKP and Turkey’s economic performance in decades prior is intended only to demonstrate how the AKP has improved Turkey. This seems like a strange argument to be having, as there shouldn’t be a question as to whether the current government is part and parcel of the republic or not, yet it can be understood in the context of Kemalism and whether or not the AKP is adhering to its tenets. Republicanism was meant to forestall exactly the charge that Kılıçdaroğlu is hurling at the government, of placing its own glory above the good of the people and the state, and the fact that it appears to have hit a nerve with Erdoğan demonstrates just how ingrained Kemalism really is. The CHP is attempting to tar the AKP with only looking out for its own interests, and Erdoğan’s response has been that the AKP’s success is actually Turkey’s success and the republic’s success, which feeds directly into the Kemalist republican ideal. Similarly, the debate involves populism as well, since the idea of popular solidarity and unity is violated by the AKP’s claiming economic success as uniquely its own.
In a world in which Kemalism was defunct, none of this would really matter; in fact, it would be perfectly natural for a party to crow about its economic success and use it as a tool with which to hammer its opponents. The fact that Erdoğan felt the need yesterday to reiterate his commitment to the republic and that Kılıçdaroğlu was nakedly appealing to two of the six tenets of Kemalism in order to score political points demonstrates that for all of the talk about post-Kemalist Turkey, shaking off decades of Kemalist ideological hegemony is easier said than done. As much as the AKP may want to water down the secularist component of Kemalism, the rest of it is still very much intact.