Erdogan seeking place in history alongside Ataturk

Turkey's presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan during an election rally in Istanbul August 3, 2014. ― Reuters pic
Turkey's presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan during an election rally in Istanbul August 3, 2014. ― Reuters pic

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ANKARA, Aug 4 ― Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to secure a place alongside Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the pantheon of great and transformative Turkish leaders, but critics accuse him of undermining the legacy of the founder of the modern republic.

Erdogan, the favourite to win Sunday's presidential election, repeatedly pays tribute to Ataturk who founded the modern Turkish state in 1923 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Ataturk forged a system of government based on a strict separation between mosque and state.

Yet the values espoused by Erdogan, a pious Muslim who does not drink or smoke and whose wife wears the Islamic headscarf, seem for many to sit at odds with Ataturk, whose aura still dominates Turkish political life and whose image is on the wall of offices up and down the country.

Erdogan sees himself a successor to Ataturk ― as well as the most successful Ottoman sultans ― in that he has embarked on a drive to modernise the country straddling Europe and Asia, in particular with a hugely ambitious infrastructure programme.

Premier since 2003, Erdogan has confronted Turkey's coup-filled past head-on and succeeded for the first time in curbing the influence of the military, which had repeatedly stepped in over the years to prevent religious influences entering with government.

“Hundreds, thousands, millions of heroes from Alparslan to Fatih (the conqueror), from Kanuni (Suleyman the Magnificent) to Yavuz Selim, from Abdulhamid to Mustafa Kemal wrote the history of this nation, not the coup makers,” he said last year, reciting the names of Turkish sultans going back to the Selcuk period in the 11th century.

Erdogan is clearly eyeing a legacy which will cement his place in history by building Turkey's first national high speed train network, a third bridge over the Bosphorus and a gigantic third airport in Istanbul.

These projects are part of a drive named “Target 2023,” the year when Turkey marks the 100th anniversary of its founding by Ataturk. Erdogan apparently has every intention of still being in power when that date comes.

'Longing for the caliphate?'

Faruk Logoglu, deputy head of the secular opposition CHP party ― founded by Ataturk ― said a long-serving leader like Erdogan would find his place in history but would leave behind a chequered legacy.

He predicted that if elected, Erdogan's "assertive" presidency would steer Turkey into uncharted waters at home and abroad.

“Religion-oriented policies will find more room, democracy will decline, freedoms will stand back,” he told AFP.

“Erdogan has been longing for the caliphate somewhere in his heart, even though it's not declared. He will use the presidency as a tool to become the leader of the Muslim world.”

The premier was shaken when the secular urban middle-class held mass protests last year, underlining the extent to which they feel alienated by his rule.

Fiercely unrepentant, Erdogan vowed that his party would not retreat from the path of modernity promoted by Ataturk and said there would be a “new Turkey” by 2023.

But a number of controversial policies including a ban on overnight sales of alcohol have resurrected fears that Erdogan's ruling AKP, which has roots in political Islam, has a hidden agenda to Islamise the country and destroy Ataturk's legacy.

'Erdogan's mixed legacy'

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at The Washington Institute said the Turkish leader had succeeded in creating a majority middle class society and transforming the country economically.

“But I think he will also go down in history as the person who did not transform the country politically and socially at the same time, in the sense that Turkey has become a middle class society but it doesn't have the liberal democracy that fits a middle class society,” he said.

If he becomes president, it remains to be seen whether the famously combative Erdogan will take a conciliatory tone towards secular Turks and avoid the increasingly polarised politics of recent years.

“Nobody disputes Erdogan's legitimacy as an elected leader but they want a more inclusive governance geared up for an independent judiciary, pluralistic media and strong civil society like in Western democracies,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

“Erdogan's legacy will be measured to what extent he radiates trust and embraces various segments of society as president. This cannot be done only with grandiose infrastructure projects,” he told AFP.

Turkey's 11 presidents from Ataturk to Gul

Turkish voters will directly elect their head of state for the first time in the country's modern history in Sunday's election, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the hot favourite to become president.

Turkey's president is a largely ceremonial figure but holds some important powers and Erdogan is expected to seek to expand the role if he takes office, by changing the constitution.

Here is a look at Turkey's 11 presidents since the foundation of the modern Turkish state in 1923:

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1923-1938)

Ataturk was the founding father of the secular republic born out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire in 1923. His 15-year presidency saw the abolition of the Islamic caliphate, introduction of deep-rooted reforms in every sphere that made both government and education secular and aimed at making Turkey attain the level of Western civilisations.

Ismet Inonu (1938-1950)

A comrade of Ataturk in action and ideas, Inonu ascended to the presidency after Ataturk's death and received the title of “National Chief” having been elected permanently leader of Ataturk's secular CHP party. Inonu managed to keep Turkey largely outside World War II and played key role in switching to a multi-party system in the aftermath of the war.

Celal Bayar (1950-1960)

During Bayar's presidency, Turkey used US aid under the Marshall Plan, its troops fought in the Korean War and the country joined NATO in 1952. Bayar was ousted in 1960 by a military junta headed by General Cemal Gursel which placed him, prime minister Adnan Menderes, and several hundred others on trial. Menderes was executed. Bayar's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1961. Because of ailing health, he was released in 1964 and pardoned in 1966.

Cemal Gursel (1960-1966)

After the 1960 coup, he headed the national unity committee formed by the military. He played a key role in drafting a new constitution for Turkey's transition to democracy again. Due to deteriorating health in 1966, his presidency was terminated by the parliament.

Cevdet Sunay (1966-1973)

Another military man, Sunay served as chief of general staff in 1960, and retired from the army in 1966. The same year he was elected president by parliament.

Fahri Koruturk (1973-1980)

A one-time chief of the Turkish navy, Koruturk presided over the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 in response to a coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece. Martial law was declared in 1980 after civil violence between rightists and leftists claimed over 2,000 lives. A military National Security Council held office from 1980-1982 during which there was no president.

Kenan Evren (1982-1989)

As head of the armed forces, Evren seized power in a pre-dawn assault on September 12, 1980. A new constitution was approved in 1982 with the provision that Evren would remain head of state until 1989. The ailing former president was sentenced to life in prison in June 2014 for his role in the 1980 coup.

Turgut Ozal (1989-1993)

Ozal was seen as a moderniser who led Turkey after a period of military rule following the 1980 coup. He directed Turkey's economy toward the free market. An ethnic Kurd, Ozal repealed the ban on speaking Kurdish and was seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict in the southeast.

Suleyman Demirel (1993-2000)

A veteran politician who served as prime minister seven times, Demirel came from humble roots. But his presidency saw financial crisis in 1994 and intense clashes with Kurdish rebels. Kurdish rebel leader Abdulah Ocalan was captured in 1999 and brought back to Turkey.

Ahmet Necdet Sezer (2000-2007)

Previously head of Turkey's top constitutional court, Sezer was a staunchly secular president, which caused divisions between him and the Erdogan's Islamic-tinted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government on a series of issues. He openly said the secular regime was under threat and warned attempts to bring religion into politics were stoking tensions.

Abdullah Gul (2007-2014)

The first attempt by Gul, a co-founder of the AKP, to become president in April 2007 sparked a political crisis. The crisis forced snap general elections in July in which the AKP won a huge majority, which it hailed as a popular mandate to renominate Gul, a pious man whose wife wears the Islamic headscarf. Gul is largely seen as the moderate face of the AKP in stark contrast to Erdogan. ― AFP

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