This article first appeared in Politico Europe on December 29th, 2015
When President Erdoğan’s party won an unexpected and decisive victory in Turkey’s November 1 election, many surprised observers concluded that the Turkish people had voted for stability. A month later, following the downing of a Russian jet and continued killing in the country’s southeast, stability seems more elusive than ever. Yet as Erdoğan leads Turkey into turbulent waters, polls suggest that his popularity has only risen along with domestic and international tensions.
People continuing to search for the secret of Erdogan’s popularity might do well to consider the success of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — particularly the powerful tradition of populist nationalism and aggrieved egalitarianism that Erdoğan inherited from him.
Shortly before November’s elections, Erdoğan presented the contrast somewhat differently.
Welcoming guests to his new thousand-room presidential palace to celebrate the founding of the Turkish Republic, Erdoğan reminded them that the country’s founders had once celebrated the occasion in Ataturk’s palace “with frocks, waltzes and champagne” while a “half-starved nation, struggling to survive without shoes on their feet or jackets on their backs, looked on from outside the gates in shock.” Today, he went on, “after a long struggle we have eliminated this division between the public and the Republic.”
Erdoğan told the assembled crowd that their presence inside his new residence symbolized the fact that the building now belonged to the people and to the nation.
In part, Turkey’s recent election hinged on whether the citizens believed him. Did they think Erdogan’s palace truly belonged to them or instead, as critics claimed, to an increasingly powerful and out-of-touch autocrat? Most sided with Erdoğan, just as almost a century earlier most had sided with Ataturk.
Ironically, Erdoğan’s attacks on Ataturk’s regime bear an uncanny resemblance to Ataturk’s own attacks on the Ottoman sultans he overthrew in creating modern Turkey. Erdoğan’s comments sought to depict his predecessors as an alien elite whose European affectations marked them as indifferent to the needs and culture of the masses. Ataturk worked to paint the late Ottoman dynasty in the same light, saying the Sultans who presided over the Empire’s dissolution were “foreign usurpers,” “madmen and spendthrifts,” whose depravity endangered the Turkish nation.
In place of waltzes and champagne, popular history from Ataturk’s era offered the Mad Sultan Ibrahim, “taking amber as an aphrodisiac” to “better busy himself with women” while Turkish soldiers fought and died. To muster popular support for abolishing first the Ottoman Empire and then the Caliphate, Ataturk accused the Ottoman Sultans of further betraying the nation by seeking British support to sustain their corrupt rule. With undoubted delight, Ataturk noted that the last Ottoman Sultan, “in his capacity as Caliph of all the Mohamedans,” had “appealed for English protection” and was conducted out of Istanbul on an English man-of-war.
Erdoğan’s regime may well do the same, and in time be remembered in a similar fashion. But its initial promise and methods are not that different from Ataturk’s. After November’s election a pro-government columnist wrote that the people who voted for Erdoğan demanded their rightful place in “the media, the academy, the arts and the neighborhoods of the elite.” Now, she declared, with the advent of democracy, “all these bastions of the great nation will be conquered.” In short, the villagers were still waiting to become masters of their country, and they expected Erdoğan to deliver where Ataturk had failed.
What makes this a particularly confusing moment in Turkish politics is that many of Erdogan’s most vocal liberal critics, in Turkey and abroad, share his critique of Ataturk’s regime. Indeed, this is why many initially supported Erdoğan’s party, as it fought to overturn the country’s rigid, even anti-Islamic form of secularism, as well as the undemocratic military and bureaucratic structures committed to enforcing it. In fact, where criticism of Ataturk was once forbidden, Turkey’s liberalization over the past decade allowed a much-needed conversation about the often oppressive nature of Ataturk’s regime.
Historians have increasingly asserted that Ataturk’s modernizing reforms were not, as official history once asserted, wildly popular but rather imposed in a top-down, authoritarian manner on a population that resented being cut off from their Islamic faith and traditional culture.
In a sense, scholars and other observers have begun to look beyond the tuxedos and top hats that once epitomized the modernity of Ataturk’s elite to notice the unmistakable Hitler mustaches that many proudly wore as well. Now, as Erdoğan becomes increasingly autocratic, there are still a few historians willing to join him in implying that Ataturk’s sins somehow excuse jailing journalists. More common, though, is the approach of publications like Der Spiegel, which in an article quite critical of Erdoğan, nonetheless described Atatürk as “a man who cared little for the pious, conservative majority of the population.”
The result is that liberal writers in Turkey and abroad have increasingly suggested that the real comparison between Erdoğan and Ataturk lies in the two men’s authoritarianism. Some have seen continuities in Turkey’s authoritarian political culture, or suggest that perhaps the Turkish people have always wanted a strong leader to rule over them. In short, if liberal observers cannot understand Erdoğan’s popularity today, they are also unable to understand Ataturk’s.
Populist nationalism can play to people’s best and worst instincts, and Erdoğan, like Ataturk, has proved a master of making it play to both. After Erdogan’s victory November 1, some of his supporters have suggested that Western observers failed to appreciate his appeal because they live in an elite bubble, cut off from ordinary Turks. Indeed, on the eve of the election, this Western observer was slightly surprised to hear one AKP supporter go on at length about Erdogan’s success in providing health care to the country’s poor. Then, instead of discussing the election, the next two people I talked to wanted to tell me about what the Jews were up to instead. Nothing good, it turns out.
Acting in the name of the national or popular will, Ataturk helped establish many basic elements of democratic rule in Turkey, including a parliament, elections and at least one political party. In the same spirit, Erdoğan now presides over an improved form of illiberal democracy, in which carefully managed mass media continues to play the same supportive role it did in Ataturk’s day. But both men have consistently shown more respect for the will of the people in the abstract than for the specific mechanisms — free elections or a free press, say — through which it might make itself manifest. Similarly, both men also proved all-too-willing to trample on the rights of minorities and individuals whose personal will does not fit with the nation’s.
Not surprisingly, the idea of the national will is, in different manifestations, central to democracy, but also fascism. When Ataturk declared that “sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the nation,” he invoked a fundamental liberal ideal — while also reminding people that he saved them from sinister forces who wanted to take their sovereignty away. In winning Turkey’s war for independence, Ataturk claimed to have delivered Turks from the hands of European imperialists and non-Muslim minorities alike. Ataturk secularism may have alienated many pious Turks, but it was not lost on them that he had just won an implausible victory against a series of foes – the English, French, Italians, Greeks and Armenians — who were all Christian. This victory, in turn, did not just help to consolidate Ataturk’s one-party rule, but helped make it popular as well.
Today Erdoğan presents his and by extension the nation’s enemies as a sinister kaleidoscope of not dissimilar forces: America and Europe, Jews and Armenians, followers of the preacher Fetullah Gulen and now possibly Vladimir Putin. Through his domestic and international grandstanding, Erdoğan likewise insists that he alone can protect his people from these powerful foes. The popular appeal of this rhetoric is certainly part paranoia, but it taps into a deeper tradition as well, one which cannot be completely disentangled from Erdoğan’s constant if unconvincing appeal to democratic ideals.
When Erdoğan came to power, some hoped he would turn Turkey into a liberal democracy like Germany. Others feared he would turn the country into an Islamic theocracy like Iran. Turkey, it appears, will continue being Turkey. But the similarities between Ataturk and Erdoğan serve as a reminder that their brand of populist nationalism and aggrieved egalitarianism is neither Western nor Islamic, but increasingly global. The equally striking similarities with Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, Berlusconi’s Italy, Orban’s Hungary or even Donald Trump’s America reveal that this rhetoric, a crucial part of 20th century politics, remains potent in the 21st century as well.