May 27, 2010 / 7:03 AM / 9 years ago

FEATURE - Secularist Turks grapple with vision of modernity

ANKARA (Reuters) - In the cool hush of the marble mausoleum above Ankara, Turks pay homage as they have for decades to secular state founder Kemal Ataturk. Down below, the traffic roars, streets teem with well-heeled youth, mosques are built, stylish cafes and bars thrive, the call to prayer echoes.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan listens to a translation through a headset in Sao Paulo May 26, 2010. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

With the advent of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the view from the mausoleum has become confusing and troubling. The secularist opposition, while accusing his AK Party of seeking an Islamist state, has struggled since traditional parties tainted by accusations of corruption crashed to defeat in 2002.

“There are more people coming here lately,” said Zafer, a professional guide in his 30s. “Perhaps they come to think about Turkey.”

Many up here yearn for a strong leader who can challenge Erdogan, uphold their view of the secular and nationalist ideals espoused by a hero who died in 1938. They shiver at Erdogan’s assertion that he is the true guardian of Ataturk’s reformist, westernising legacy, the true ‘Kemalist’.

There is a sense amongst many though that Ataturk’s own Republican People’s Party (CHP) has become fossilised fighting old battles while the AK Party pushes a modernising agenda of social and economic reform.

Last weekend, the CHP formally jetisoned its hardline leader Deniz Baykal, rejected by voters in 2002 and 2007, and elected former civil servant Kemal Kilicdaroglu in his place. Hopes are rising of a resurgent party ready to fight 2011 elections.

“The CHP has already attracted some disaffected and pro-reform voters with the election of Kilicdaroglu,” Tarhan Erdem, head of the respected Konda research and polling group, told Reuters.

Some of that buzz stems from relief that Baykal has finally quit. Kilicdaroglu, 62, has little time to work any magic, but the change at the CHP at least provides a better choice for voters alarmed by the AK Party’s strong religious wing.

“(Kilicdaroglu’s) leadership has brought Turkey a very important thing: an alternative, a party you can vote for, other than the AK Party. But he has to take some concrete steps and show it deserves to win their votes,” Erdem said.

The Kemalist ideology of Ataturk’s heirs needs updating to have wider appeal among a population with an average age of 28. Analysts say Kilicdaroglu needs to reinvent a Kemalism that went bankrupt as Turkey and the world around it changed.


Secular middle-class Turks — engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats — used to trust the CHP, which claims to guard Ataturk’s legacy. But failure to modernise made it unelectable even for those who distrust Erdogan’s AK Party.

Shorn of voter support, the CHP appeared to fall back on goading friends in the army and the judiciary to act against the government. The judiciary faces reform and the army, which had removed four governments since 1960, has seen its influence pared back and faced accusations of coup plots against officers.

Unable to block government proposals for constitutional change in parliament, the CHP has asked the Constitutional Court to stop the package going to a national referendum in September.

While the AK has won plaudits among markets and in Europe for espousing change, the CHP entrenched itself behind an anti-Western, anti-religious and anti-liberal discourse.

Today, Turkey is a EU candidate nation with a vibrant and globalised $600 billion economy that attracts large sums of foreign investment and has gained the status of regional power.

While the westernised secularist elite of Istanbul and Ankara has in recent years seen its privileges and lifestyle threatened, the pious and once marginalised masses from the Anatolian heartland have risen to political and economic prominence in the wake of the privatisations of the 1990s.


The AK Party capitalised on this social shift.

It earned support outside its hardcore vote with strong- willed economic policy, promoted business in the Anatolian heartland, reduced the influence of the military and set about reforming the judiciary in pursuit of European Union membership.

Many in the CHP will still see these reforms as a covert move to cripple democracy and introduce sharia — something denied by Erdogan, who was himself jailed in the 1990s for reading out a poem deemed by a court to be islamist incitement.

“Turkey has figured out how to be a functioning democracy in the Middle East,” Paul Salem, Middle East director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Turkey’s Zaman newspaper in a recent interview.

“It has figured out how to do economics in the 21st century and has figured out how to have Islam and secularism and science and individuality and community all in the same society in the Middle East,” Salem said.

To make up lost ground the CHP needs to take a more sophisticated approach to issues of Islam in the public sphere, individual freedoms, economic policies in a globalised world, Turkey’s international relations, and offer some way out of the Kurdish conflict in its own borders.

“The new CHP should find a way to reconcile its values with a progressive agenda based on freedoms,” said Asli Baydar, a 45, mathematics teacher in Istanbul.

“It should begin talking about a more democratic Turkey and combine this with its traditional values such as secularism, addressing socio-economic imbalances and adopting a positive discourse of change and hope.”

So far Kilicdaroglu has trodden carefully, making vague promises to fight graft and poverty and pandering to his party’s populist wing by visiting mining towns. He has much to do in the land to break AK’s huge parliamentary majority.

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Ralph Boulton

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