During an interview Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argued that the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, would vote “yes” in the upcoming referendum to expand Erdoğan’s presidential power by abolishing the Prime Minister’s office and replacing it with a vice president, among other reforms.
Erdoğan was responding to a column in the German newspaper Bild titled “Atatürk Would Have Said ‘No,'” published in German and Turkish over the weekend. Turkish citizens living in Germany are eligible to vote in the April 16 referendum.
“On what ground have they said such a thing? Do they have the ability to read the memories of Atatürk? What does it have to do with Atatürk?” Erdoğan told HaberTürk and Bloomberg, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. “Now, I would say, on the contrary, that if Atatürk were to rise again, he would say ‘yes’ to the regulation we have prepared because he, himself, lived with such [a system].”
Erdoğan claimed that Atatürk “did what we want to do because he “could not even get along with İsmet İnönü who was his fellow worker.” İnönü succeeded Atatürk as the second president of the Turkish republic in 1938. “Didn’t Mustafa Kemal rule by himself? We do not want to rule like that, but he was at odds with İnönü.”
The president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) are arguing that Turkey must evolve its parliamentary system into a presidential one in order to “modernize” the country. Critics allege that creating a presidential system without ensuring necessary checks on the executive from the legislative and judiciary will expand Erdoğan’s power beyond what is safe for the maintenance of a democracy. AKP leaders contend, instead, that the current system does not allow for Erdoğan to properly act in the face of multiple terrorist threats and a declining economy.
“The current constitution gives a lot of powers to the president, but without any accountability and any responsibility, and no judicial supervision,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu argued in an exclusive interview with Breitbart News last week. “The power will go to the people, not anybody else.”
Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, whose position in a new presidential system is uncertain, has vociferously attacked those who oppose the transition, likening them to those who organized a coup attempt against Erdoğan in July 2016. “Those who want to replace the national will; who have planned the July 15, 2016 coup… will be expired, they are taking their place in the garbage of history,” he said this week.
The Turkish government insists that those who organized the failed coup were supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Gulen presides over a religious movement known as “Hizmet” which many have likened to a cult and rules a network of charter schools throughout the United States. Ankara identifies Hizmet as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) and accuses it of organizing violent acts to overthrow Erdoğan.
Early reports in July 2016 identified the coup organizers not as Gulenists, however, but as Kemalists – Atatürk secularist military leaders who objected to the AKP’s growing Islamicization of Turkey. Following the founding of the Republic of Turkey, Atatürk banned the instruction of Islamic doctrine in schools, banned the hijab and other Islamic clothing and standardized the Turkish language using Roman letters. Atatürk envisioned a strictly secular government, though the Armenian National Institute identifies him as the “consummator of the Armenian Genocide” and a major organizer of the ethnic cleansing of Armenian Christians out of Anatolia.
During his tenure, Erdoğan has overturned a number of Kemalist policies, including allowing hijab in the military and in schools, reintroducing the pre-Atatürk Ottoman language in schools, and cracking down on alcohol consumption. Under the current president, a record number of Turks have visited Atatürk’s tomb in Istanbul, as academics decried “moral authoritarianism” and protesters warned that the AKP was “stepping on everything Ataturk stands for.”
Under the current presidency, the Kemalist social assemblies known as Halkevleri (“People’s Houses”) have also faced growing violence. In January, a Halkevleri assembly at a shopping mall came to blows as a mob attacked the secularists, beating them while chanting “there is no god but Allah.” The Halkevleri had unfurled a banner reading “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” at the mall. During the attack, the secularists chanted “We are soldiers of Mustafa Kemal.”
The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party founded by Atatürk, supports a “no” vote in next month’s referendum.
“The 20 most developed countries, apart from the U.S., are governed by parliamentary systems. The 20 countries at the bottom of the list are governed by presidential systems,” Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the lead of the CHP, said last week during a press event in Ordu. “The only Muslim country that has a developed democracy is Turkey. None of the other Islamic countries have a republic. Now we are turning round and destroying the republic. Why?”
“If you say that a leader of a political party should appoint judges and prosecutors, then you should vote ‘yes.’ But if you do not want politics to interfere with the judiciary, then you should vote ‘no,’” he argued, adding that the “yes” vote would “demolish the democratic system in Turkey and harm civilization.”